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Risk of waterborne illness via drinking water in the United States.

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  • 1The University of Arizona, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, 1295 N. Martin Ave., Tucson, AZ 85724, USA.

Abstract

Outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are not common in the U.S., but they do still occur and can lead to serious acute, chronic, or sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly in sensitive and immunocompromised populations. From 1971 to 2002, there were 764 documented waterborne outbreaks associated with drinking water, resulting in 575,457 cases of illness and 79 deaths (Blackburn et al. 2004; Calderon 2004); however, the true impact of disease is estimated to be much higher. If properly applied, current protocols in municipal water treatment are effective at eliminating pathogens from water. However, inadequate, interrupted, or intermittent treatment has repeatedly been associated with waterborne disease outbreaks. Contamination is not evenly distributed but rather affected by the number of pathogens in the source water, the age of the distribution system, the quality of the delivered water, and climatic events that can tax treatment plant operations. Private water supplies are not regulated by the USEPA and are generally not treated or monitored, although very few of the municipal systems involved in documented outbreaks exceeded the USEPA's total coliform standard in the preceding 12 mon (Craun et al. 2002). We provide here estimates of waterborne infection and illness risks in the U.S. based on the total number of water systems, source water type, and total populations exposed. Furthermore, we evaluated all possible illnesses associated with the microbial infection and not just gastroenteritis. Our results indicate that 10.7 M infections/yr and 5.4 M illnesses/yr occur in populations served by community groundwater systems; 2.2 M infections/yr and 1.1 M illnesses/yr occur in noncommunity groundwater systems; and 26.0 M infections/yr and 13.0 M illnesses/yr occur in municipal surface water systems. The total estimated number of waterborne illnesses/yr in the U.S. is therefore estimated to be 19.5 M/yr. Others have recently estimated waterborne illness rates of 12M cases/yr (Colford et al. 2006) and 16 M cases/yr (Messner et al. 2006), yet our estimate considers all health outcomes associated with exposure to pathogens in drinking water rather than only gastrointestinal illness. Drinking water outbreaks exemplify known breaches in municipal water treatment and distribution processes and the failure of regulatory requirements to ensure water that is free of human pathogens. Water purification technologies applied at the point-of-use (POU) can be effective for limiting the effects of source water contamination, treatment plant inadequacies, minor intrusions in the distribution system, or deliberate posttreatment acts (i.e., bioterrorism). Epidemiological studies are conflicting on the benefits of POU water treatment. One prospective intervention study found that consumers of reverse-osmosis (POU) filtered water had 20%-35% less gastrointestinal illnesses than those consuming regular tap water, with an excess of 14% of illness due to contaminants introduced in the distribution system (Payment 1991, 1997). Two other studies using randomized, blinded, controlled trials determined that the risks were equal among groups supplied with POU-treated water compared to untreated tap water (Hellard et al. 2001; Colford et al. 2003). For immunocompromised populations, POU water treatment devices are recommended by the CDC and USEPA as one treatment option for reducing risks of Cryptosporidium and other types of infectious agents transmitted by drinking water. Other populations, including those experiencing "normal" life stages such as pregnancy, or those very young or very old, might also benefit from the utilization of additional water treatment options beyond the current multibarrier approach of municipal water treatment.

PMID:
18020305
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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