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An Integrative Investigation of the Sources and Effects of Groundwater Contamination for Local Communities and Homeowners in North Carolina


<ul> <LI> To establish reliable scientific tools for understanding the mechanisms of mobilization of natural contaminants in groundwater in North Carolina; <LI> To assess efficacies of technological solutions for adequate remediation; <LI> To evaluate the implications of information disclosure programs on household behavior and willingness-to-pay for improvements in drinking water quality; <LI> To investigate policy options for addressing private well water contamination. </ul>Consequently, we believe this study will be used as a catalyst for a change in current policy in North Carolina. Moreover, we expect that the proposed outreach activities will result in a significant increase in the level of awareness of local communities in the rural and sub-urban areas of North Carolina and will provide homeowners, the private sector, state agencies, and local officials with the necessary scientific, technological, and policy tools to meaningfully address the problem of natural contaminants in well water in North Carolina.

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Non-Technical Summary: Drinking water from private wells is currently unregulated in the United States. While the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and North Carolina's drinking water standards protect consumers of public water systems, there are no similar protections for the safety of private wells. In western and central parts of North Carolina, ground water is tapped from shallow aquifers that are located along the contact between the underlying fractured bedrock and overlying weathered profiles leading to high levels of several natural contaminants. Currently about two million residents in North Carolina are served by private wells and this number is rapidly growing. The purpose of this project is to evaluate the exposure of private well users to natural contaminants of arsenic, radon, and radium. The project investigates the mechanisms in which these natural contaminants are leached into groundwater, the available treatment techniques for removal of natural contaminants, the role of information as an environmental health policy tool that examines how households respond to information regarding inorganic contaminants, and the policy implications for an increasing population that uses groundwater with contaminant levels exceeding EPA regulations. The project includes a strong outreach component coordinated with state and county agencies, the private sector, a non-governmental organization, and direct communication with local communities and private homeowners. <P> Approach: This interdisciplinary project is based on the following components: (1) Assess the levels of arsenic, radon, and radium in private wells in North Carolina across socioeconomic and geological variables, particularly in zones identified as hot spots for these contaminants. (2) Develop geochemical models for understanding the mechanisms that enhance the mobilization of natural contaminants in groundwater. (3) Establish simple chemical and physical fingerprinting indicators as warning tools for occurrence of high contaminants in groundwater. (4) Evaluate the available treatment methodologies for removal of arsenic, radon, and radium from well water, their economic cost, and the relationships between removal recovery and contaminant accumulation in the residual effluent and/or separation media. (5) Assess the relationships between arsenic, radon, and radium levels in private wells in North Carolina and socioeconomic characteristics. (6) Assess the baseline level of awareness of inorganic contamination in drinking water among households with private wells. (7) Assess how households respond to provision of information on the health effects of inorganic chemical contaminants and specific information on the levels of these contaminants in their drinking water. (8) Estimate households willingness-to-pay to reduce health risk from exposure to arsenic, radon and radium in drinking water. (9) Develop natural science and social science based recommendations for changes in current public policy and legislation with respect to the exposure of private homeowners to contaminants in well waters and drawing upon lessons learned in other states. (10) Develop and evaluate outreach tools to provide reliable information about the magnitude of water contamination, health implications, economic cost for remediation and policy implication to the stakeholders: the private homeowners, the state and county agencies, and the private sector.

Vengosh, Avner
Duke University
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