U.S. Geological Survey - Environmental Health

Drinking Water and Municipal Wastewaters

USGS Scientist collecting water samples in a stream
USGS scientist collects water samples and measures stream-water field parameters at North Sylamore Creek, Arkansas, on January 7, 2014. About 60 sample bottles are filled and shipped to USGS and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laboratories across the Nation for chemical and biological analysis. Photo Credit: John Tyler Mays, USGS.

Treatment and distribution systems for safe water supply and wastewater recycling and reuse are essential for public health and the environment. Approximately 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in urban areas where public water and wastewater systems are monitored and made safe under state and federal regulations. The remainder of the population depends on self-monitored and maintained private-well and septic systems. Aging infrastructure, unsafe legacy materials such as lead water supply pipes, growing dependence on water reuse to meet population-driven water demands, and other factors can create a potential for exposures to increasingly complex and largely unregulated chemical and microbiological contaminant mixtures. The interdisciplinary U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Water Infrastructure Science Team collaborates with public utilities, private landowners, academia, non-government organizations, Federal to local public health agencies (National Institutes of Health [NIH], National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [NIEHS], Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]), state regulators, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide objective scientific information on actual health impacts and practical mitigation strategies to inform water use/reuse decision-making and best management practices.

What is the Chemical and Microbial Content of Our Tap Waters?

Find Out

Current Science Questions and Activities

  • 2016 Pilot study assessing human exposure to mixed contamination in drinking water at the tap in homes and offices distributed across the nation. Source waters include municipal surface-water and groundwater supplies, domestic wells, and bottled water.
  • 2017 Phase 1 multi-institution (Environmental Health Mission Area (EHMA) Infrastructure Science Team, University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, NIH/NIEHS National Toxicology Program [NTP], EPA, Colorado School of Mines, University of South Carolina) collaboration providing initial assessment of perceived and actual risk of human exposure to mixed biological and chemical contaminants in drinking water (tapwater) in approximately 60 homes in the Greater Chicago area and in the raw and finished water at drinking-water treatment plants (DWTP; aka, Water Purification Plants [WPP] or Water Filtration Plants [WFP]) that supply those homes.
  • Multi-institution collaboration to determine correlative and other statistical associations between arsenic exposure from domestic and public supply wells and human health outcomes using existing databases and related modeling.
  • Ongoing multi-institution (EHMA Infrastructure Science Team, NIEHS NTP, EPA, Colorado School of Mines, University of South Carolina, University of Illinois Chicago) collaboration assessing perceived and actual risk of human exposure to mixed biological and chemical contaminants in drinking water (tapwater) in homes and in the raw and finished water at drinking-water treatment plants (DWTP; aka, Water Purification Plants [WPP] or Water Filtration Plants [WFP]) that supply those homes.
  • Can There be Unintended Benefits when Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure is Upgraded?

    Find Out

  • Contaminants in tap water can be associated with:
       (1) Private/public supply,
       (2) Minor/major DWTP,
       (3) Infrastructure upgrade/recover including lead service lines,
       (4) Source type (reservoirs, streams, groundwater), and
       (5) Defacto-reuse percentage (e.g., temperate vs xeric climate).
    Assess contributions tapwater exposure from drinking-water supply infrastructure, including: public and private service lines, DWTP treatment scheme, and at the tap treatment.
  • Assess and define the key hydrologic and biogeochemical processes in the groundwater to surface water pathway that affect the health of aquatic organisms exposed to contaminants.
  • Assess and define the surface-water and subsurface hydrologic and biogeochemical processes that affect exposure of humans to mixtures of potentially hazardous contaminants from sewage wastewater and other sources in well water pumped from aquifers recharged by surface water infiltration from lakes and rivers.
  • What are the health effects to stream biota due to exposures of intermingling of PCBs with other industrial and wastewater contaminants, from hazardous waste sites, sewage treatment plants, storm runoff, and overflow from retention ponds?
  • Do common mixtures of chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) pose a health risk to aquatic biota when groundwater contaminated by wastewater and fire fighting chemicals discharges to surface water bodies?
  • Relate surface-water target chemical analytical results to corresponding high-throughput bioassay (Attagene) results and using the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database (CTD) to understand potential health effects of contaminant mixture exposures.
  • Assess perceived vs actual risk to the health of biota exposed to anthropogenic bioactive contaminants in National Park ecosystems.
  • Do contaminants in wastewaters discharged from food, beverage, and feedstock processing plants pose health risks to downstream biota or are risks only perceived?
  • How do municipal wastewater treatment technologies minimize the health risk to aquatic biota exposed to novel contaminant mixtures in wastewater discharges?
  • How do urban stormwater management technologies minimize the health risk to aquatic biota exposed to novel contaminant mixtures?

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Page Last Modified: April 18 2018