A team of Virginia Tech researchers and students is exploring the downstream effects of lacking access to clean water in Appalachia. 

“We all have this perception of universal access in America,” said Leigh-Anne Krometis, an associate professor of biological systems engineering. “Students come to Virginia Tech and they learn it is a lot more complex. It’s not just a technical issue. There are political issues and sociological issues.” 

Sponsored by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment’s (ISCE) Scholars Program, Krometis and an interdisciplinary team of five colleagues and five graduate students aims to quantify the economic and health implications of using multiple water sources, such as natural springs and bottled water, when in-home water is not accessible or the quality is questionable. She and the team have focused on McDowell County, West Virginia – about 2 1/2 hours west of Blacksburg – where they collected a variety of water samples and surveyed residents. 

“Appalachia has been recognized as a national area of water inequity, particularly in Central Appalachia, Southwest Virginia, and southern West Virginia,” said Krometis, who is a Elizabeth and James E. Turner, Jr. '56 Faculty Fellow. “Doing this research is highlighting the issues that still exist in lots of parts of rural America. Ideally work like this will encourage more investment in centralized water infrastructure that meets health-based guidelines.”

Working with DigDeep, a national nonprofit focused on water inequality, Krometis and the graduate students collected piped-in water from the homes of 14 residents whose incomes fall below the national poverty line. They also administered surveys about the residents’ water use and perceptions of quality as well as the estimated time and cost related to their use of bottled water.

“Because we tend to think that the U.S. provides water to everyone, these people get left behind,” said Emerald Dudzinski, graduate student in the industrial and systems engineering department and ICTAS doctoral scholar. “To make a decision as to what is the best way to get these people clean water access, we need to start with how much it costs them right now, and how we make it more affordable to them.” 

The surveys were designed by project member Alasdair Cohen, an assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in public health and affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Along with the in-home samples, the research team purchased bottled water from local stores and collected samples from natural springs frequently used by residents. The samples were tested in one of four Virginia Tech labs: Krometis’ lab, Cohen’s lab, and the labs of two additional faculty partners: Kang Xia, professor of plant and environmental sciences, and Austin Gray, assistant professor of biological sciences.

Loading player for https://video.vt.edu/media/1_nzidvn4o...

The water is tested for metals, nutrients and minerals, bacteria and E. coli, PFAS, and microplastics. PFAS are especially complicated to assess. They are defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water,” and toxic levels may affect reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system, and the liver.

“In preliminary lab results, the most common PFAS were notably identified in the samples of all five homes dependent on hauling stream water,” said Kate Albi, a graduate student researcher studying biological systems engineering. “Additionally, of the 14 homes sampled, approximately 65 percent of residents reported bottled water as their primary, year-round drinking water source.”

Gray’s lab has a focus on microplastics, which can develop in bottled water, especially when stored for long periods of time. 

“You would think bottled water would be safer for people to drink, but it is not regulated by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] as drinking water is,” said Kathleen Hohweiler, a graduate student researcher studying biological systems engineering. “It’s regulated by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], which has less rigid guidelines.”

Along with the potential health risk, bottled water, as well as water from natural springs, come with the additional burden of purchase, transportation, and time. Team member Kimberly Ellis, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, and Dudzinski will be analyzing this economic impact. Initial findings from the surveys revealed the purchase of bottled water alone costs at least 6.2 percent of the median household income of participants, yet the EPA has set a 4.5 percent of monthly income recommendation as a limit for water affordability. 

“I expect that to go up quite a bit when we factor in everything else,” Dudzinski said. “Our ultimate goal is to measure water affordability. To do so we must construct models for the economic impact of different water sources to ensure we capture both direct and indirect costs.”

The participants of the study have received an initial water quality report and will receive another at the conclusion, which will specifically detail PFAS and microplastics data from each of their in-home water samples. Krometis hopes this helps residents make more informed decisions about how to improve their water access.

“We are trying to help the residents make better choices about their water sources, but some residents don’t really have a choice,” Krometis said.

Part of what makes this potentially life-changing work possible, as well as including students in the process, is the support of the ISCE Scholars Program. 

“The ISCE funding helps us continue to build data and to raise awareness regarding the disparities in access to safe drinking water throughout the U.S.,” Krometis said. “This project also gives graduate students the opportunity to conduct real-world research that matters and has obvious implications for the communities involved.”


Share this story