Elevated levels of arsenic and other metals found in Nevada’s private wells

Elevated levels of arsenic and other metals found in Nevada’s private wells

Elevated Levels of Arsenic and Other Metals Found in Nevada’s Private Wells

October 26, 2022
RENO, Nevada

Water Treatment
Arsenic
Private Wells

Above: Researchers test a private well water for traces as metals such as arsenic in Washoe Valley. Private wells are the primary source of drinking water, serving 182,000 people outside of Nevada’s bustling cities. 

Credit: Monica Arienzo/DRI.

Study shows that many household wells need better drinking water treatment and monitoring

 

Outside of Nevada’s bustling cities, private wells are the primary source of drinking water, serving 182,000 people. Yet some of the tested private wells in Nevada are contaminated with levels of heavy metals that exceed federal, state or health-based guidelines, a new study published in Science of The Total Environment shows. Consuming water contaminated by metals such as arsenic can cause adverse health effects.

Scientists from DRI and the University of Hawaii Cancer Center recruited households with private wells through the Healthy Nevada Project. Households were sent free water testing kits, and participants were notified of their water quality results and recommended actions they could take. More than 170 households participated in the research, with 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 healthcare interact. We directly engaged our participants to better understand environmental contaminants that may cause adverse health outcomes,” said co-author Joseph Grzymski, Ph.D., research professor at DRI, principal investigator of the Healthy Nevada Project®, and chief scientific officer for Renown Health.

Nearly one-quarter (22%) of the private wells sampled had arsenic that exceeded safe levels determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — with levels 80 times higher than the limit in some cases. Elevated levels of uranium, lead, cadmium, and iron were also found. 

 

two female scientists collect well water samples

Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., and Erika Robtoy, undergraduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno collect well water samples in Palomino Valley, Nevada.

Credit: Daniel Saftner/DRI.

“We know from previous research that Nevada’s arid climate and geologic landscape produce these heavy metals in our groundwater,” says Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., an 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 is impacting the safety of their drinking water.”

Fewer than half (41%) of the wells sampled used water treatment systems, and some treated water samples still contained arsenic levels over 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 own water quality, and well water testing helps ensure water is safe to drink. This study shows that more frequent testing is needed to ensure Nevada’s rural communities have safe drinking water. This is particularly important as the effects of climate change and population growth alter the chemistry of groundwater, potentially increasing metal concentrations.

“The results emphasize the importance of regular water quality monitoring and treatment systems,” said co-author Daniel Saftner, M.S., assistant research scientist at DRI.

Although the research focused on wells in Nevada, other arid communities in Western states are facing similar risks of water contamination.

 

More information:

The full study, Naturally Occurring Metals in Unregulated Domestic Wells in Nevada, USA, is available from Science of The Total Environment: 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 who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact 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 serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.

About Renown Health

Renown Health is Nevada’s largest, not-for-profit integrated healthcare network serving Nevada, Lake Tahoe, and northeast California. With a diverse workforce of more than 6,500 employees, Renown has fostered a longstanding culture of excellence, determination, and innovation. The organization comprises a trauma center, two acute care hospitals, a children’s hospital, a rehabilitation hospital, a medical group and urgent care network, and the locally owned not-for-profit insurance company, Hometown Health. Renown is currently enrolling participants in a community-based genetic population health study, the Healthy Nevada Project®. For more information, visit renown.org.

About the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center

The University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center through its various activities, including scientific research and clinical trials, adds more than $57 million to the Oʻahu economy.  It is one of only 71 research institutions designated by the National Cancer Institute.  An organized research unit within the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, the UH Cancer Center is dedicated to eliminating cancer through research, education, patient care and community outreach with an emphasis on the unique ethnic, cultural, and environmental characteristics of Hawaiʻi 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:

Renown Public Relations
M: 775.691.7308
E: news@renown.org

Detra Page – DRI
M: 702.591.3786
E: Detra.Page@dri.edu

Meet Steve Bacon, M.S.

Meet Steve Bacon, M.S.

Steve Bacon, M.S., P.G., C.E.G. is an associate research scientist of geomorphology with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno. Steve specializes in geology, paleoclimate, and landscape evolution, and has been a member of the DRI community since 2005. He is a licensed geologist and certified engineering geologist in California. He is also originally from southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in environmental systems – geology from Humboldt State University. In his free time, Steve enjoys skiing and camping with his family.


DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Bacon: I work in engineering geology, geomorphology, and geologic hazards, which are fields focused on understanding  why landforms and landscapes look the way that they do and how they can potentially pose a hazard. I’m currently finishing up my pursuit for a Ph.D. in hydrology, focusing on paleoclimate modeling of Owens Lake in central California. Outside of my Ph.D. research, I work on U.S. Navy projects at China Lake through DRI’s Naval Earth Science Engineering Program (NESEP) , doing engineering geology and geomorphology. I also commonly work on Department of Energy (DOE) projects to assess the hazards related to surface erosion for DOE facilities in the western US, as well as on a National Institute of Health (NIH) project characterizing the spatial distribution of naturally occurring mineral fibers across northern Nevada.

Steve Bacon samples sediments along the bank of the Snake River in Idaho.

DRI: Can you tell us about your research at Owens Lake?

Bacon: Yes, I’ve been working to identify past precipitation changes in the Owens River watershed, in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains – so looking at how wet and how dry the environment in that area has been over many thousands of years. I’ve developed a lake-level record of Owens Lake going back 50,000 years. To do that, I’ve been dating shoreline deposits using radiocarbon and luminescence age dating techniques, and integrating lake sediment core records to produce a continuous lake-level record.

All of the precipitation and snowmelt from the watershed ultimately goes to the lake, so when the lake fills up, that’s a function of how much precipitation has occurred. So, using the continuous lake-level record, I’m doing watershed and lake hydrologic modeling to learn about changes in prehistoric precipitation levels that occurred over the last 12,000 years.

DRI: How will this information be used?

Bacon: Ultimately, it can be used to understand past atmospheric circulation patterns, like, where the jet stream was at different periods of time. For example, if it was dry in the southern Sierras, chances are the jet stream was further to the north. And when there were periods where it was relatively wet, the jet stream was further south. Atmospheric modelers can use that information to refine their models of the past.

This information can also help us to understand the future, to better understand climate change. To understand what potentially can happen in the future, we rely on the past; that’s one main reason why you study the past.

View from Steve Bacon’s field camp during a research expedition in the southern Owens Valley. Owens Lake and the Sierra Nevada mountains are in the distance.

DRI: How did you become interested in this particular research question?

Bacon: I love the east side of the Sierra Nevada. I always have, ever since I was a kid and we’d drive up to Mammoth or go camping out in Death Valley and Panamint Valley. I had an opportunity as a grad student to investigate the Owens Valley fault, which last ruptured in 1872 and produced the third largest earthquake in California. We trenched that fault to characterize the earthquake history, but to understand the earthquake history, we had to characterize the lake-level history, because the fault broke up the shoreline deposits left by the lake. So that’s when I started putting together the lake-level history of Owens Lake, as part of my master’s thesis at Humboldt State University. I’ve been working on this problem for 21 years.

DRI: What do you like about studying the ancient history of places like Owens Lake?

Bacon: It’s like a scavenger hunt. You’re looking around for clues to solve a puzzle. It’s a big geologic puzzle. We go four-wheel-drive around in the desert, or hike with a shovel, digging, cleaning off geologic exposures on different landforms, such as riverbanks and alluvial fans, just finding clues. Geologic clues. It’s fun. I like it. That’s why I do it, I guess.

Steve Bacon samples sediments along the bank of the Snake River in Idaho.

For more information on Steve Bacon and his work, please visit his directory page.