Theses Doctoral

Drinking water arsenic and uranium: associations with urinary biomarkers and diabetes across the United States

Spaur, Maya

Inorganic arsenic is a potent carcinogen and toxicant associated with numerous adverse health outcomes, and is number one on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Substance Priority List. Uranium is also a carcinogen and nephrotoxicant, however health effects at levels experienced by general populations is unclear. Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic (As) and uranium (U) in the United States (US) occurs from unregulated private wells and federally regulated community water systems (CWSs). Geogenic arsenic contamination typically occurs in groundwater as opposed to surface water supplies. Groundwater is a major source for many CWSs in the US. Although the US Environmental Protection Agency sets the maximum contaminant level (MCL enforceable since 2006: 10 µg/L) for arsenic in CWSs, private wells are not federally regulated. The contribution of drinking water from private wells and regulated CWSs to total inorganic arsenic and uranium exposure is not clear.In the United States (US), type 2 diabetes (T2D) affects approximately 37.3 million people (11.3% of the population), with the highest burden in American Indian communities. Toxic metal exposures have been identified as risk factors of T2D. Most studies rely on biomarkers, which could be affected by early disease processes. Studies directly measuring metals in drinking water in US populations have been limited.

In Chapter 2, we evaluated county-level associations between modeled values of the probability of private well arsenic exceeding 10 µg/L and CWS arsenic concentrations for 2,231 counties in the conterminous US, using time invariant private well arsenic estimates and CWS arsenic estimates for two time periods. Nationwide, county-level CWS arsenic concentrations increased by 8.4 µg/L per 100% increase in the probability of private well arsenic exceeding 10 µg/L for 2006 – 2008 (the initial compliance monitoring period after MCL implementation), and by 7.3 µg/L for 2009 – 2011 (the second monitoring period following MCL implementation) (1.1 µg/L mean decline over time). Regional differences in this temporal decline suggest that interventions to implement the MCL were more pronounced in regions served primarily by groundwater. The strong association between private well and CWS arsenic in Rural, American Indian, and Semi Urban, Hispanic counties suggests that future research and regulatory support are needed to reduce water arsenic exposures in these vulnerable subpopulations. This comparison of arsenic exposure values from major private and public drinking water sources nationwide is critical to future assessments of drinking water arsenic exposure and health outcomes.

In Chapter 3, we aimed to determine the association between drinking water arsenic estimates and urinary arsenic concentrations in the 2003-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). We evaluated 11,088 participants from the 2003-2014 NHANES cycles. For each participant, we assigned private well and CWS arsenic levels according to county of residence using estimates previously derived by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey. We used recalibrated urinary dimethylarsinate (rDMA) to reflect the internal dose of estimated water arsenic by applying a previously validated, residual-based method that removes the contribution of dietary arsenic sources. We compared the adjusted geometric mean ratios and corresponding percent change of urinary rDMA across tertiles of private well and CWS arsenic levels, with the lowest tertile as the reference. Comparisons were made overall and stratified by census region and race/ethnicity. Overall, the geometric mean of urinary rDMA was 2.52 (2.30, 2.77) µg/L among private well users and 2.64 (2.57, 2.72) µg/L among CWS users. Urinary rDMA was highest among participants in the West and South, and among Mexican American, Other Hispanic, and Non-Hispanic Other participants. Urinary rDMA levels were 25% (95% confidence interval (CI): 17-34%) and 20% (95% CI: 12-29%) higher comparing the highest to the lowest tertile of CWS and private well arsenic, respectively. The strongest associations between water arsenic and urinary rDMA were observed among participants in the South, West, and among Mexican American and Non-Hispanic White and Black participants. Both private wells and regulated CWSs are associated with inorganic arsenic internal dose as reflected in urine in the general U.S. population.

In Chapter 4, our objective was to evaluate regional and sociodemographic inequalities in water arsenic exposure reductions associated with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Final Arsenic Rule, which lowered the arsenic maximum contaminant level to 10 µg/L in public water systems. We analyzed 8,544 participants from the 2003-14 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) reliant on community water systems (CWSs). We estimated arsenic exposure from water by recalibrating urinary dimethylarsinate (rDMA) to remove smoking and dietary contributions. We evaluated mean differences and corresponding percent reductions of urinary rDMA comparing subsequent survey cycles to 2003-04 (baseline), stratified by region, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and tertile of CWS arsenic assigned at the county level. The overall difference (percent reduction) in urine rDMA was 0.32 µg/L (9%) among participants with the highest tertile of CWS arsenic, comparing 2013-14 to 2003-04. Declines in urinary rDMA were largest in regions with the highest water arsenic: the South [0.57 µg/L (16%)] and West [0.46 µg/L, (14%)]. Declines in urinary rDMA levels were significant and largest among Mexican American [0.99 µg/L (26%)] and Non-Hispanic White [0.25 µg/L (10%)] participants. Reductions in rDMA following the Final Arsenic Rule were highest among participants with the highest CWS arsenic concentrations, supporting legislation can benefit those who need it the most, although additional efforts are still needed to address remaining inequalities in CWS arsenic exposure.

In Chapter 5, we examined the contribution of water As and U to urinary biomarkers in the Strong Heart Family Study (SHFS), a prospective study of American Indian communities, and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a prospective study of racially/ethnically diverse urban US communities. We assigned residential zip code-level estimates in CWSs (µg/L) and private wells (90th percentile probability of As >10 µg/L) to up to 1,485 and 6,722 participants with dietary information and urinary biomarkers in the SHFS (2001-2003) and MESA (2000-2002; 2010-2011), respectively. Total inorganic As exposure was estimated as the sum of inorganic and methylated species in urine (urine As). We used linear mixed-effects models to account for participant clustering and removed the effect of dietary sources of As and U via regression adjustment. The median (interquartile range) urine As was 5.32 (3.29, 8.53) and 6.32 (3.34, 12.48) µg/L for SHFS and MESA, respectively, and urine U was 0.037 (0.014, 0.071) and 0.007 (0.003, 0.018) µg/L. In a mixed-effects meta-analysis of pooled effects across the SHFS and MESA, urine As was 11% (95% CI: 3, 20%) higher and urine U was 35% (5, 73%) higher per 2-fold higher CWS As and U, respectively. In the SHFS, CWS and private well As explained >40% of variability in urine As and CWS U explained >20% of urine U. In MESA, CWS As and U explained >50% of urine As and U. Water from public water supplies and private wells represents a major contributor to inorganic As and U exposure in diverse US populations.

In Chapter 6, we examined the association of arsenic exposures in community water systems (CWS) and private wells with T2D incidence in the Strong Heart Family Study (SHFS), a prospective cohort of American Indian communities, and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a prospective study of racially/ethnically diverse urban US communities, to evaluate direct associations between drinking water metal exposures and T2D risk. We evaluated adults in the SHFS free of T2D at baseline (2001-2003) and followed through 2010, with available private well and CWS arsenic (N=1,791) estimates assigned by residential zip code. We also evaluated adults in the MESA free of T2D at baseline (2000-2002) and followed through 2019, with available zip code level CWS arsenic (N=5,577) estimates. We used mixed effects Cox models to account for clustering by family and residential zip code, with adjustment for sex, baseline age, body mass index (BMI), smoking status, and education. T2D incidence in the SHFS was 24.4 cases per 1,000 people (mean follow-up 5.6 years) and T2D incidence in MESA was 11.2 per 1,000 people (mean follow-up 6.0 years). In a meta-analysis of pooled effects across the SHFS and MESA, the corresponding hazard ratio (95% confidence interval) per 2-fold increase in water arsenic was 1.09 (1.01, 1.16). Differences were observed by BMI category and sex; positive associations were observed among participants with BMI <25 kg/m2 and among female participants. In categorical analyses, >10% probability of private well arsenic (<10% reference) in the SHFS and >1 µg/L of CWS arsenic (<1 µg/L reference) in MESA were associated with increased diabetes risk. Low to moderate water arsenic levels in unregulated private wells and federally regulated CWSs were associated with T2D incidence in the SHFS and MESA. In supplementary analyses, we also observed that CWS uranium was associated with T2D risk among SHFS and MESA participants with BMI<25 kg/m2.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Environmental Health Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Nigra, Anne E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 5, 2023