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Kentucky Study Finds No Dangerous Levels of Heavy Metals in Public Drinking Water


A new study by the Kentucky Division of Water finds there isn’t an unhealthy concentration of certain heavy metals in drinking water.The state’s study is a response to a growing body of work that suggests there is a higher risk of cancer in Appalachian mining communities.“Because of these expressed concerns, the agency conducted an extensive analysis of the quality of drinking water in all of Kentucky’s public water systems across the Commonwealth, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott said in a press release.The Division of Water’s study looked at heavy metals like arsenic and chromium (and seven others) in all of the public drinking water systems across the Commonwealth for the past 12 years. It found that none of the drinking water had levels of these metals that could be dangerous to human health. A separate analysis of cancer throughout the Commonwealth found no correlation between the amount of coal produced in a county and incidences of invasive cancer.Al Westerman is an environmental scientist with the Division of Water. He says the study suggests that heavy metals in public drinking water isn’t responsible for elevated cancer rates, but the analysis wasn’t designed to answer all the questions that remain about cancer in Appalachia.“I guess the one thing we do feel rather confident about, and our data supports it, is that if you are drinking from a public water system in Kentucky, your water is safe to drink,” he said. At least free from carcinogenic levels of arsenic and chromium.”The study was prompted by work from other researchers that has found correlations between mountaintop removal mining and certain types of cancer. One of those researchers is Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University. He says Kentucky’s study doesn’t refute his work.“To only test heavy metals is to miss a big portion of the potential problems in the water,” Hendryx said. “It’s really not even close to addressing the problem.”Hendryx says research has shown other substances in water—like ammonium and organic compounds—could be the causes of the cancer. He says air pollution near mining sites could also be a culprit.The Division of Water’s study has been submitted to the Kentucky Academy of Sciences for peer-review and publication. Westerman says an analysis of heavy metals in private drinking water wells will be released soon.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.