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Your Environment. Your Health.

Correctional Facilities' Drinking Water May Put Inmate Health at Risk

Ana Navas-Acien, M.D., Ph.D.
Columbia University
R01ES028758, P42ES010349, F31ES029799, T32ES007322

Arsenic concentrations in drinking water in Southwestern U.S. correctional facilities may be twice as high as those in nearby communities, according to a recent NIEHS-funded study. Although arsenic levels in drinking water are generally higher in the Southwest than the rest of the U.S., this is the first study to document disproportionate exposure to the substance from drinking water among inmates compared to non-incarcerated populations.

The research team analyzed more than 200,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arsenic monitoring records from nearly 40,000 community water systems from 2006 to 2011. They compared average arsenic concentrations in systems exclusively serving correctional facilities to all other water systems in the Southwest and the U.S. as a whole. They also determined the odds of exceeding the EPA's 10 micrograms per liter maximum contaminant level (MCL).

Average arsenic concentrations in correctional facility water systems were twice as high as other systems in the region and four times higher than water systems across the U.S. More than a quarter of correctional facility water systems exceeded the MCL, compared to just under 6% of other systems.

According to the authors, incarcerated people in the Southwestern U.S. are more likely to have higher levels of arsenic in their water, and may also lack access to alternative drinking sources, such as bottled water. Increased exposure to contaminants may also contribute to observed health disparities within this vulnerable population.

Citation: Nigra AE, Navas-Acien A. 2020. Arsenic in U.S. correctional facility drinking water, 2006 – 2011. Environ Res 188:109768.

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