Image: Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., of DRI, and Erika Robtoy, an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, collect well water samples in Nevada’s Palomino Valley.
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Credit: Daniel Saftner/DRI

Reno, Nevada (October 26, 2022) – Outside of Nevada’s bustling cities, private wells are the primary source of drinking water, serving 182,000 people. Yet some of the private wells tested in Nevada are contaminated with heavy metal levels that exceed federal, state or health guidelines, according to a new study published in Total Environmental Science shows. Drinking water contaminated with metals such as arsenic can have adverse health effects.

Scientists from DRI and the University of Hawaii Cancer Center recruited households with private wells as part of the Healthy Nevada Project. Households received free water testing kits and participants were informed of their water quality results and recommended actions they could take. More than 170 households participated in the search, the majority from northern Nevada around Reno, Carson City and Fallon.

“The goals of the Healthy Nevada Project are to understand how genetics, environment, social factors and health care interact. We directly engaged our participants to better understand environmental contaminants that may have adverse health effects,” said co-author Joseph Grzymski, Ph.D., research professor at DRI, principal investigator of the Healthy Nevada Project. ® and Scientific Director of Renown. Health.

Nearly a quarter (22%) of private wells sampled contained arsenic that exceeded safe levels determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – with levels 80 times above the limit in some cases. High levels of uranium, lead, cadmium and iron were also found.

“We know from previous research that Nevada’s arid climate and geologic landscape are producing these heavy metals in our groundwater,” says Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., associate research professor at DRI who led the study. “It was important for us to reach out to community members with private wells to see how this impacts the safety of their drinking water.

Less than half (41%) of the wells sampled were using water treatment systems, and some treated water samples still contained arsenic levels above EPA guidelines. Although average levels of heavy metal contaminants were lower in treated water, many homes were unable to reduce contaminants to levels considered safe.

The state leaves private well owners responsible for monitoring their water quality, and well water testing helps ensure the water is safe to drink. This study shows that more frequent testing is needed to ensure rural Nevada communities have safe drinking water. This is particularly important because the effects of climate change and population growth are altering groundwater chemistry, potentially increasing metal concentrations.

“The results underscore the importance of regular monitoring of water quality and treatment systems,” said co-author Daniel Saftner, MS, assistant researcher at DRI.

Although the research focused on wells in Nevada, other arid communities in western states face similar risks of water contamination.

More information:

The full study, Naturally Occurring Metals in Unregulated Domestic Wells in Nevada, USA, is available at Total Environmental Science: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.158277.

This project was funded by an NIH award (#1R01ES030948-01). The Healthy Nevada Project was funded by grants from Renown Health and the Renown Health Foundation. Study authors included Monica M. Arienzo (DRI), Daniel Saftner (DRI), Steven N. Bacon (DRI), Erika Robtoy (DRI), Iva Neveux (DRI), Karen Schlauch (DRI), Michele Carbone ( University of Hawaii Cancer Center) and Joseph Grzymski (DRI/Renown Health).

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About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students working alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the world. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from the impact of humans on the environment to the impact of the environment on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI is the nonprofit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, visit www.dri.edu.

About Renown Health
Renown Health is Nevada’s largest nonprofit integrated health care network, serving Nevada, Lake Tahoe and Northeastern California. With a diverse workforce of over 6,500 employees, Renown has fostered a longstanding culture of excellence, determination and innovation. The organization includes a trauma center, two acute care hospitals, a children’s hospital, a rehabilitation hospital, an urgent care medical group and network, and the local nonprofit insurance company, Hometown Health. Renown is currently recruiting participants for a community-based population genetic health study, the Healthy Nevada Project®. For more information, visit renown.org.

About the University of Hawaii Cancer Center

The University of Hawaii Cancer Center, through its various activities, including scientific research and clinical trials, adds more than $57 million to the economy of Oʻahu. It is one of 71 research institutes designated by the National Cancer Institute. An organized research unit within the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, the UH Cancer Center is dedicated to eliminating cancer through research, education, patient care, and community outreach by putting the emphasis on the unique ethnic, cultural, and environmental characteristics of Hawaii and the Pacific. Learn more at https://www.uhcancercenter.org. Like us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/UHCancerCenter. Follow us on Twitter @UHCancerCenter.

Media contacts:

Detra Page – DRI

M: 702.591.3786

E: [email protected]

Renowned public relations

M: 775.691.7308

Email: [email protected]


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