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Drinking Water Quality and Health Knowledge in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley

In collaboration with researchers from UCSF and the University of Ottawa and with generous support from UC Davis and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this interdisciplinary project brings together scholars from economics, geography, and the public health field to develop a set of rigorous qualitative and biometric protocols to supplement existing public health efforts to examine and compare the experiences and understandings surrounding drinking water contamination risks, the associated health outcomes, the individual and community level economic impacts, and the behaviors and policy actions at various scales that might mitigate the risks.

California’s San Joaquin Valley is significantly burdened by measurable rates of drinking water contamination, which has been associated with a variety of acute and chronic health problems. Nitrate contamination, caused by agricultural runoff, for example, has been linked with health impacts including infant mortality related to methemoglobinemia, digestive tract impairments including cancers and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and thyroid disruptions. Additionally, the worry and stress related to a lack of clean drinking water can lead to chronic, stress-related mental and physical illnesses, as well as have significant economic impacts at the individual and community level.

Yet, particularly for health outcomes with complex etiologies, direct relationships to drinking water quality have been difficult to confirm in large part because of complex contexts ranging from exposure to multiple water sources and multiple contaminants, to residents’ varied understandings of risk and interactions with and access to health care providers. Protocols will be developed through multidisciplinary collaboration and community engagement to directly address the complexity of drinking water and health outcomes through themes prevalent in contemporary health geography studies including embodied understandings, relational perspectives and attention to uncertainty. The project will also provide insight for innovations in health policy and practice.


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