Water Faucet

Among the ridges and hollows of Eastern Kentucky, a killer is loose. Cancer. In Martin County, where the cancer rate is significantly higher than the national average, eyes are turning toward a dilapidated water system as one possible cause. In a shining example of town-and-gown cooperation, University of Kentucky scientists and local activists are collaborating on a pilot epidemiology study looking at drinking water quality and its possible health effects.

Jason Unrine, associate professor in CAFE’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and the project’s lead scientist, is quick to point out that Martin County isn’t alone when it comes to degraded drinking water systems. This is a problem in rural communities throughout the country where money is tight and infrastructure is failing.

What enthuses Unrine about the project, which is funded by the UK Center for Appalachian Research and Environmental Sciences in the College of Medicine, is the partnership with local citizens who really understand the issues.

“We’re trying to develop a model for collaboration between university researchers and local citizens. The goals are defined by the community,” he said. “I make sure the study is scientifically sound, but I try to have it driven by their concerns.”

Locals are concerned about the amount of cancer-causing chemicals in their drinking water, said Nina McCoy, a member of Concerned Citizens of Martin County, retired high school biology teacher and a research assistant in the study. For the past 16 years, the water company has sent out quarterly notices that the water contains disinfection byproducts linked to serious health issues.
Disinfection byproducts are a result of chlorinating water that has a lot of organic matter. Another problem stems from low water pressure in leaky delivery pipes, which causes biofilms to grow in the pipes and groundwater to enter.

“Because there are so many leaks and so much variation in the water quality from house to house, we felt we needed to get data on the level of the individual home,” Unrine said. “We’re looking at how health effects are distributed spatially across the county and how that’s associated with the level of contaminants in the drinking water.”

McCoy said people are very excited about the project.

“They are interested because they don’t trust (the water), and they don’t know who to trust and what to think,” she said. “I think they’re so glad that UK is doing this.”

Unrine hopes that this small study of about 100 homes will lead to a larger, more statistically robust one.

—Carol Lea Spence