Water Contamination – Navigating the floods of (mis)information

Written by Thomas Griffin, PhD, Assistant Professor, UVM LCOM Division of Public Health

Here in Vermont, we are facing unusually high winter temperatures – a reminder of the acute effects that climate patterns have on our daily lives. Flooding is not typically on the top of minds this time of year even though it can accompany rapid snowmelt. For the local reader, severe July 2023 flooding is too fresh in recent memory to consider enduring another such event. However, floodwater is a vehicle for contaminated water, posing dangerous health risks that should not be ignored. Meeting preparedness head on by sharing accurate information is critical, especially as some suggest that climate-based misinformation can be worse than specific events themselves.

In my role teaching graduate public health students about environmental health, and as one who strives to improve conditions for people and planet, I recognize the importance of sustaining planetary health through systems thinking across geographies. My interest in the relationship between human activity, human health, and the environment emerged during overseas service in Cameroon, which coincided with a cholera outbreak stemming from contaminated public water sources in a dense city neighborhood. I observed firsthand the need for various stakeholders (e.g., public health officials, public works employees, individual households, etc.) to coordinate in alleviating this treatable, yet preventable, scenario.

Contaminated water: an important public health issue.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal #6 recognizes access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene as a human right, pursuing several ambitious targets for universal and equitable access to clean water by 2030. Similarly, the American Public Health Association argues that safe and accessible water is essential to health, taking an equity-centric view to show how the Nation’s most vulnerable populations disproportionately experience water-related health issues.

Unfortunately, even the United States is still far from achieving UN targets and the consequences are staggering. The CDC estimates about 7.15 million waterborne illnesses occur annually, resulting in 601,000 ED visits, 118,000 hospitalizations, and 6,630 deaths and incurring US $3.33 billion direct healthcare costs.

Water contamination is a complex issue because there are many ways it can transpire. Sometimes, contaminant sources (e.g., microorganisms, fertilizers, heavy metals, etc.) associated with human activities in agriculture, industry, or in sustaining residential communities place our health at risk. In other cases further upstream, the effects of climate change (e.g., rising sea temperatures, increased precipitation, etc.) can disrupt the potential for clean water in natural marine systems or see extreme weather events completely alter an area’s water systems in an instant.

Strategies to prevent water contamination.

Preventing water contamination is best tackled by employing strategies across multiple levels of society. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, everyday actions at the individual and community levels can include proper disposal of harmful household substances, limiting lawn and garden chemicals, or joining a community watershed organization.

Vermont’s Clean Water Initiative is a great example of collective action at the state level. Shared investment and transparent accountability measures expand the ability to improve clean water access beyond any single agency going alone. Federal legislation, like the Clean Water Act, is another strategy to prevent water contamination through regulation of quality standards for surface waters and discharges of pollutants.

Where to turn for more information.

We are in the midst of an infodemic, where there can be not enough quality information easily available or a flood of misinformation making it difficult to navigate on important health-related topics. I therefore felt compelled to share a curated list of references to point you in a few trusted directions. The sources cover health risks associated with floods, general clean water information, and flood-specific safety information.

  1. Paterson DL, Wright H, Harris PN. Health risks of flood disasters. Clin Infect Dis 2018;67(9):1450-1454. doi:10.1093/cid/ciy227 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30986298/
  2. Healthy water. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated January 5, 2023. Accessed March 5, 2024. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/
  3. Stay safe in a flood. Vermont Department of Health. Updated February 20, 2024. Accessed March 5, 2024. https://www.healthvermont.gov/emergency/public-health-preparedness/stay-safe-flood

About Thomas Griffin, PhD

I am an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine, where I teach courses in environmental public health, global health, and public health for health professionals. As an interdisciplinary scholar and systems thinker, I focus on advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through education and research.

Dr. Griffin bio

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