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Water: Adult

Supplemental Materials for the Video, “Tap into Prevention: Drinking Water Information for Health Care Providers”

EPA 816-K-04-004, August 2004



After watching this video, you will be able to:

  • Name four health problems related to contaminants in drinking water
  • Identify the types of patients most sensitive to each health problem
  • Describe how contaminants can enter drinking water supplies
  • Identify the treatment methods that remove the contaminants
  • List clinical findings that should prompt reporting suspicion of a waterborne disease to the local health department
  • Describe how patients can learn about the quality of their drinking water
  • Describe the role of health care providers in a public health network that identifies and responds to waterborne illness
  • List resources for further information on drinking water and health

Key Concepts

The following information represents some contaminants to which certain patients may be particularly sensitive.

Cryptosporidium parvum. Cryptosporidium parvum is a pathogen found in human and animal fecal waste. It can enter rivers, lakes, and streams and, rarely, ground water that contribute to drinking water supplies. Because of its small size and composition, it is resistant to typical filtration and disinfection methods 00 though EPA has tightened its standards in recent years requiring public water systems specifically to address this contaminant.

  • Exposure to Cryptosporidium parvum in drinking water may cause gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. Patients whose immune systems are weakened by AIDS, chemotherapy, a recent transplant or other reasons are most vulnerable. Diarrhea and vomiting may cause infants and the frail elderly to become dehydrated more quickly. In most healthy adults and children, the problems are temporary. Other, more common routes of exposure to this pathogen are food, unsanitary diaper-changing practices, person-to-person contact, and swimming in contaminated water.
  • Suggested interventions: Sample stools more frequently. Include questions on water sources for patients with diarrhea. Those with questionable water sources require further investigation. Most standard ova and parasite cultures do not automatically test for Cryptosporidium. Be sure to specifically request an acid-fast fluorescent test.

Escherichia coli or E. coli. E. coli is a type of fecal coliform bacteria commonly found in the intestines of animals or humans. The presence of E. coli in water is a strong indication of recent sewage or animal waste contamination. Sewage may contain many types of disease-causing organisms. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless and live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, a particular strain, E. coli O157:H7, produces a powerful toxin and can cause severe illness.

  • Most infections of E. coli O157:H7 are believed to have come from eating undercooked ground beef. However, some have been waterborne, and people have become sick after drinking contaminated water.
  • Infection by E. coli O157:H7 is characterized by severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps, although sometimes the infection causes non-bloody diarrhea, often with no fever. In some people, particularly children under 5 years of age and the elderly, the infection can also cause a life-threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. Hemolytic uremic syndrome is usually treated in an intensive care unit, and blood transfusions and kidney dialysis are often required.
  • Suggested interventions: Encourage patients (or their parents) to have household well water tested annually for nitrates and bacteria by a state-certified laboratory. If a patient's well tests positive for E. coli, people in the household should not drink the water without boiling the water for at least one minute at a rolling boil - longer if they live at high altitudes. The well may also be disinfected according to procedures recommended by the local health department. Water must be monitored periodically after disinfection to make certain the problem does not recur. If contamination is a recurring problem, patients should investigate the feasibility of drilling a new well or installing a point-of-entry disinfection unit using chlorine, ultraviolet light, or ozone.

Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts (DBPs). Disinfectants, while effective in controlling many microorganisms, react with matter in water to form DBPs. Unchlorinated private well water is unlikely to contain any DBPs.

  • While health effects from exposure to disinfectants and DBPs vary by contaminant, some epidemiological studies have shown a link between bladder, rectal, and colon cancers and DBP exposure. Additionally, human epidemiological studies report an association between chlorinated drinking water and reproductive and developmental endpoints such as spontaneous abortion, neural tube defects, pre-term delivery, intrauterine growth retardation, and low birth weight. In August 2003, EPA proposed measures beyond those already required for public water systems.
  • Suggested interventions: Drinking plenty of water from a safe source during pregnancy is important. If your patients' public water system has notified customers of a DBP violation, follow instructions from the public water system. For example, your patients might want to consider alternatives to tap water during pregnancy.

Lead. Paint chips and dust from lead paint in old buildings are the primary routes of children's exposure to lead, but EPA estimates that up to 20 percent of a person's background exposure may be due to lead in drinking water - and the percentage is higher for infants drinking formula mixed with contaminated drinking water. Lead may be present in drinking water because of corrosion of household plumbing systems; erosion of natural deposits. In some communities, lead service lines can also contribute to high levels of lead in drinking water.

  • In infants and young children, continuous exposure to high levels of lead may result in delays in physical or mental development, deficits in attention span, and learning disabilities.
  • For adults, such exposure may result in kidney problems or high blood pressure.
  • Suggested interventions: Look for symptoms of lead poisoning in children, and test infants' blood lead levels. If a child's blood lead level is high, consider lead in tap water as a possible factor, in addition to lead paint exposure. Encourage patients to have drinking water tested for lead in homes, schools, and day care centers by a state-certified laboratory. Encourage local schools and day care centers to test their drinking water outlets for lead.
  • Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and especially making baby formula. It's important to consider that foods that absorb all of the water in the pot, such as rice and dried beans, will also absorb all of the lead that is in the cooking water. Soups made or mixed with water will also contain any lead that's in the water. Foods cooked in water and then drained, such as pasta, meat, or vegetables, also absorb some lead from the water.
  • If lead levels in drinking water are high, consider alternatives to using boiled tap water in baby formula.
  • Information and brochures are available from the National Lead Information Center, (800) 424-LEAD [5323], www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/nlic.htm.

Nitrates and Nitrites. Nitrates may run off or percolate into water sources from excessive fertilizer use and animal waste; leaching from improperly constructed or maintained tanks, cesspools, sewage; or erosion of natural deposits.

  • Exposure to nitrates in drinking water at levels above the drinking water standard may result in methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby syndrome," in infants under six months. Blue baby syndrome is life-threatening without immediate medical attention. Infants most likely to get methemoglobinemia are those who are already sick and consume food that is high in nitrates, such as spinach, broccoli and cured meats, and drink formula mixed with water that is high in nitrates.
  • Possible interventions: Encourage patients to have household well water tested annually for nitrates and bacteria by a state-certified laboratory, especially those caring for infants and expectant parents and grandparents. If water has high nitrate levels, consider alternatives to using bottled tap water in baby formula. Boiling water only increases nitrate concentrations.

Drinking Water Security. Events of September 11, 2001, have brought into focus the possibility of intentional contamination of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Doctors, nurses, and others in primary care would likely be the first to observe unusual illness patterns or disease trends resulting from intentional biological or chemical contamination.

"Recognizing Waterborne Disease and the Health Effects of Water Pollution: A Physician On-line Reference Guide," by Patricia L. Meinhardt, MD, MPH, MA, includes a section, "Physician Preparedness for Acts of Water Terrorism." It is available at WaterHealthConnection.org.

Recognize, Report, and Prevent Waterborne Illness

  • Report suspicion of waterborne illness to your local health department.
  • Take an environmental health history that includes, "What is the source of drinking water?"
  • Familiarize yourself with your patients' water supply. Annual water quality reports are a good first source of information on local public water systems. Household well owners are responsible for making sure their wells are tested regularly and maintained properly. A free booklet, "Drinking Water from Household Wells," is available at www.epa.gov/safewater/privatewells/booklet/index.html. [BROKEN]

Drinking Water Resources

EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water
Together with states, tribes, and our many partners, the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water protects public health by ensuring safe drinking water and protecting ground water. EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline provides information about drinking water and ground water protection programs authorized under the Safe Drinking Water Act. (800) 426-4791

CDC Division of Parasitic Diseases
The mission of the division is to prevent and control parasitic diseases in the United States and throughout the world and to increase survival of children in developing countries, through surveillance and by conducting laboratory and epidemiological research.
www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/healthywater Exit EPA Disclaimer

Home Water Testing

Your state Certification Officer can provide a list of laboratories certified to test for contaminants in drinking water.

Household Wells

Provides information to help farmers and rural residents assess pollution risks and develop management plans to meet their unique needs.
www.wisc.edu/farmasyst Exit EPA Disclaimer

Wellcare® Hotline
(888) 395-1033
Through wellcare®, the Water Systems Council provides rural well owners, other technical assistance providers, water system operators, and community leaders important information and training on how to properly design, operate and manage well-based systems.
www.watersystemscouncil.org/wellcare[BROKEN] Exit EPA Disclaimer

DrinkWell TM Well Water Testing
Underwriters Laboratories' well testing service also has a nurse call center and provides sources of information. For questions regarding ordering, sample collection and shipping, call 888-503-5544.
www.uldrinkwell.com Exit EPA Disclaimer

National Ground Water Association
This National Ground Water Association's Wellowner web site offers a variety of information relating to ground water and private water well systems.
www.wellowner.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

Home Water Treatment Units

Water Quality Association
The Water Quality Association is a not-for-profit international trade association representing the household, commercial, industrial, and small community water treatment industry.
www.wqa.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

NSF International
NSF International's Home Water Treatment Devises web page includes information on selecting and using water treatment devices.
www.nsfconsumer.org/water/dw_treatment.asp Exit EPA Disclaimer

Underwriters Laboratories
Underwriters Laboratories tests and certifies home water treatment units to ensure they meet national standards.
www.ul.com/water Exit EPA Disclaimer

Bottled Water

International Bottled Water Association
This trade association requires members to adhere to its model code, in addition to meeting federal requirements for bottled water.
www.bottledwater.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

NSF International
NSF International tests bottled water products for compliance with federal guidelines and lists bottled water companies certified through its voluntary certification program.
www.nsfconsumer.org/water/bottled_water.asp Exit EPA Disclaimer

Protecting Drinking Water Sources

EPA's Source Water Protection Program
EPA has information on preventing contamination of streams, rivers, lakes and underground aquifers that supply private wells and public drinking water.
www.epa.gov/safewater/protect.html Exit EPA Disclaimer

Groundwater Foundation
The Groundwater Foundation educates and motivates people to care for and about ground water through water festivals and other activities. Its Groundwater Guardian program encourages communities to begin and enhance ground water awareness and protection activities.
www.groundwater.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

American Ground Water Trust
This educational organization protects ground water and promotes resource sustainability; communicates the value of ground water; showcases science and technology solutions; increases awareness; and facilitates stakeholder participation in water resource decisions.
www.agwt.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

Ground Water Protection Council
The Ground Water Protection Council is a national association of state ground water and underground injection control agencies whose mission is to promote the protection and conservation of ground water resources for all beneficial uses, recognizing ground water as a critical component of the ecosystem.
www.gwpc.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

National Ground Water Association
The National Ground Water Association's mission is to enhance the skills and credibility of all ground water professionals, develop and exchange industry knowledge and promote the ground water industry and understanding of ground water resources.
www.ngwa.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

Water Systems Council
The Water Systems Council is a national non-profit organization, dedicated to promoting the wider use of wells as modern and affordable safe drinking water systems and to protect ground water resources.
www.watersystemscouncil.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

Additional Resources for Health Professionals

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but includes opportunities for further continuing education on drinking water and resources on environmental health.

"Recognizing Waterborne Disease and the Health Effects of Water Pollution," and online reference guide; up to 22 Continuing Medical Education credits and continuing education credits for other professions are sponsored by the American College of Preventive Medicine. Bu Patricia Meinhardt, MD, MPH, MA. Includes a repository of information on how to detect biological and chemical weapons exposure and respond appropriately. www.WaterHealthConnection.org Exit EPA Disclaimer

"Waterborne Disease and Water Pollution: What Every Physician in Your Community Needs to Know." This American College of Preventive Medicine Institute contains 10 presentations by various physicians and water professionals in streaming video and audio. Speakers provide a clinical overview of diagnosis and management of waterborne disease and health effects of water pollution, as well as strategies for risk communication to discuss these environmental health issues with patients. The sessions also address challenges facing the water utility community, tasked with providing safe drinking water in America. www.acpm.org/ehealth/waterborne.htm Exit EPA Disclaimer

Drinking Water and Disease: What Every Health Care Provider Should Know, Physicians for Social Responsibility. www.envirohealthaction.org/upload_files/dwprimer.pdf Exit EPA Disclaimer

"Environmental Health and Nursing," a developing educational series designed to assist nurses integrating environmental health knowledge and skills in professional practice through distance learning. CEU and graduate credits available.
University of Minnesota School of Public Health, http://mclph.jawshotel.umn.edu/pubh7201 Exit EPA Disclaimer

University of Maryland School of Nursing EnviRN Website: A Virtual Resource for Environmental Health and Nursing, www.envirn.umaryland.edu. Exit EPA Disclaimer
EnviRN's gateway to an array or resources, including multimedia content: envirn.umaryland.edu/resources/resources.htm[BROKEN] Exit EPA Disclaimer

Environmental Health and Nursing Practice, by Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, and Jane Lipscomb, RN, PhD, FAAN, Editors, www.springerpub.com/store/page4282_6.html Exit EPA Disclaimer

National Environmental Education and Training Foundation Health Publications
Includes links to information for health care providers on pesticides, ranging from national strategies to medical and nursing practice guidelines. www.neetf.org/Health/publications.sthm Exit EPA Disclaimer



John Balbus, MD, MPH, Director, Environmental Health Program, Environmental Defense, Washington, DC; Founding Director, George Washington University Medical School Center for Risk Science and Public Health, Washington, DC

Vince Clews, Screenwriter, Baltimore, MD

Sherri Umansky, Environmental Protection Specialist, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC


John Balbus, MD, MPH
Paul Anthony, Actor, Chevy Chase, MD

Featured Experts:


Paul Bierdrzycki, Manager of Disease Control, City of Milwaukee Health Department

*Kathleen Blair, RN, Epidemiologist, City of Milwaukee Health Department

Mary Busalacchi, HIV Nurse Clinician, Milwaukee

Lon Couillard, Water Quality Manager, Milwaukee Water Works

Ian Gilson, MD, Internist, Milwaukee

Karen Sue Kehl, PhD, Associate Professor and Section Director, Microbiology, Medical College of Wisconsin; Technical Director of Microbiology, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin

Paul Nannis, Vice President, Department of Government and Community Relations, Aurora Health Care; formerly City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner

Mary Rotar, RN, Infection Control Coordinator for Children's Health Care System and formerly for West Allis Memorial Hospital, Milwaukee

Thomas A. Taft, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist, Hospital Epidemiologist, and Chair of Infection Control at West Allis Memorial Hospital; Assistant Clinical Professor, St. Joseph's Hospital, Milwaukee

* Case Study Coordinator


Carla Campbell, MD, Medical Director, Lead Poisoning and Toxicology Clinic, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Pediatric Consultant, Philadelphia Department of Health

*Lisa Donahue, Environmental Scientist, EPA Region III, Philadelphia

Karen Johnson, Chief, Safe Drinking Water Act Branch, Office of Compliance and Enforcement, EPA Region III, Philadelphia

Richard Tobin, Program Director, Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program

* Case Study Coordinator


Terri Helland, RN, Public Health Nurse, Brown County Public Health

Anita Hoffmann, Director, Brown County Public Health

*Bonnie Holz, Public Health Preparedness Coordinator, Minnesota Department of Health; formerly Environmental Health Director for Brown, Nicollet and Cottonwood Counties

Kevin Kuehner, Water Quality Specialist, Brown Nicollet Cottonwood Water Quality Board

* Case Study Coordinator

Physician, Nurse, and Health Educator Reviewers

The following people helped ensure the activity met criteria required for a continuing education activity within their professions.

Brenda Afzal, RN, BSN, MS, Project Manager, University of Maryland School of Nursing, Environmental Health Education Center

John M. Balbus, MD, MPH

Diane Drew, RN, Senior Health Education Specialist, CDC

Cathey E. Falvo, MD, MPH, Professor of Public Health Practice, Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics, New York Medical College

Sharon Hall, RN, Public Health Advisor, Acting Branch Chief, Learner Support, CDC

Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, Associate Professor and Director, Environmental Health Education Center, University of Maryland School of Nursing

Lauren Swirsky, MPH, CHES, Senior Health Education Specialist, Division of Health Education, ATSDR

Dianyi Yu, MD, PhD, Medical Officer, CDC

Special Thanks:

In addition to workplaces of the experts interviewed, the following organizations have contributed video footage, still images, or filming locations to this production:

Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, Philadelphia Water Department

Georgetown Aqueduct in Washington, DC, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

School District of Philadelphia

Mulberry Child Care & Preschool, Philadelphia

CH Diagnostic & Consulting Services, Inc., Loveland, Colorado

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service

Thank you to all those who participated in pilot testing, and to staff at EPA, CDC, and ATSDR, too numerous to list, who reviewed multiple drafts and provided valuable critiques and advice.

Finally, thank you to all those involved, on- and off-camera, in the production of this video. The Milwaukee segment was filmed the week of September 11, 2001, and the Philadelphia and Minnesota segments were filmed just a few weeks later. The hospitality and commitment of our hosts, and the diligence, support, and professionalism of the DC-based crew, made this production possible and will not be forgotten.


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