Background: Drinking water contaminated by chemicals or pathogens is a major public health threat in the developing world. Responses to this threat often require water consumers (households or communities) to improve their own management or treatment of water. One approach hypothesized to increase such positive behaviors is increasing knowledge of the risks of unsafe water through the dissemination of water contamination data. This paper reviews the evidence for this approach in changing behavior and subsequent health outcomes.
Methods/principal findings: A systematic review was conducted for studies where results of tests for contaminants in drinking water were disseminated to populations whose water supply posed a known health risk. Studies of any design were included where data were available from a contemporaneous comparison or control group. Using multiple sources >14,000 documents were located. Six studies met inclusion criteria (four of arsenic contamination and two of microbiological contamination). Meta-analysis was not possible in most cases due to heterogeneity of outcomes and study designs. Outcomes included water quality, change of water source, treatment of water, knowledge of contamination, and urinary arsenic. Source switching was most frequently reported: of 5 reporting studies 4 report significantly higher rates of switching (26-72%) among those who received a positive test result and a pooled risk difference was calculate for 2 studies (RD = 0.43 [CI0.4.0-0.46] 6-12 months post intervention) suggesting 43% more of those with unsafe wells switched source compared to those with safe wells. Strength of evidence is low since the comparison is between non-equivalent groups. Two studies concerning fecal contamination reported non-significant increases in point-of-use water treatment.
Conclusion: Despite the publication of some large cohort studies and some encouraging results the evidence base to support dissemination of contamination data to improve water management is currently equivocal. Rigorous studies on this topic are needed, ideally using common outcome measures.