Microbiological and chemical drinking water contaminants and associated health outcomes in rural Appalachia, USA: A systematic review and meta-analysis


In rural areas of the United States, an estimated ~1.8 million people lack reliable access to safe drinking water. Considering the relative dearth of information on water contamination and health outcomes in Appalachia, we conducted a systematic review of studies of microbiological and chemical drinking water contamination and associated health outcomes in rural Appalachia. We pre-registered our protocols, limiting eligibility to primary data studies published from 2000 to 2019, and searched four databases (PubMed, EMBASE, Web of Science, and the Cochrane Library). We used qualitative syntheses, meta-analyses, risk of bias analysis, and meta-regression to assess reported findings, with reference to US EPA drinking water standards. Of the 3452 records identified for screening, 85 met our eligibility criteria. 93 % of eligible studies (n = 79) used cross-sectional designs. Most studies were conducted in Northern (32 %, n = 27) and North Central (24 %, n = 20) Appalachia, and only 6 % (n = 5) were conducted exclusively in Central Appalachia. Across studies, E. coli were detected in 10.6 % of samples (sample-size-weighted mean percentage from 4671 samples, 14 publications). Among chemical contaminants, sample-size-weighted mean concentrations for arsenic were 0.010 mg/L (n = 21,262 samples, 6 publications), and 0.009 mg/L for lead (n = 23,259, 5 publications). 32 % (n = 27) of studies assessed health outcomes, but only 4.7 % (n = 4) used case-control or cohort designs (all others were cross-sectional). The most commonly reported outcomes were detection of PFAS in blood serum (n = 13), gastrointestinal illness (n = 5), and cardiovascular-related outcomes (n = 4). Of the 27 studies that assessed health outcomes, 62.9 % (n = 17) appeared to be associated with water contamination events that had received national media attention. Overall, based on the number and quality of eligible studies identified, we could not reach clear conclusions about the state of water quality, or its impacts on health, in any of Appalachia's subregions. More epidemiologic research is needed to understand contaminated water sources, exposures, and potentially associated health outcomes in Appalachia.

Water contamination, Rural health, Pathogens, Heavy metals, Appalachia