Contribution of arsenic and uranium in private wells and community water systems to urinary biomarkers in US adults: The Strong Heart Study and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis

J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2024 Jan;34(1):77-89. doi: 10.1038/s41370-023-00586-2. Epub 2023 Aug 9.


Background: Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic (As) and uranium (U) in the United States (US) occurs from unregulated private wells and federally regulated community water systems (CWSs). The contribution of water to total exposure is assumed to be low when water As and U concentrations are low.

Objective: We examined the contribution of water As and U to urinary biomarkers in the Strong Heart Family Study (SHFS), a prospective study of American Indian communities, and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a prospective study of racially/ethnically diverse urban U.S. communities.

Methods: We assigned residential zip code-level estimates in CWSs (µg/L) and private wells (90th percentile probability of As >10 µg/L) to up to 1485 and 6722 participants with dietary information and urinary biomarkers in the SHFS (2001-2003) and MESA (2000-2002; 2010-2011), respectively. Urine As was estimated as the sum of inorganic and methylated species, and urine U was total uranium. We used linear mixed-effects models to account for participant clustering and removed the effect of dietary sources via regression adjustment.

Results: The median (interquartile range) urine As was 5.32 (3.29, 8.53) and 6.32 (3.34, 12.48) µg/L for SHFS and MESA, respectively, and urine U was 0.037 (0.014, 0.071) and 0.007 (0.003, 0.018) µg/L. In a meta-analysis across both studies, urine As was 11% (95% CI: 3, 20%) higher and urine U was 35% (5, 73%) higher per twofold higher CWS As and U, respectively. In the SHFS, zip-code level factors such as private well and CWS As contributed 46% of variation in urine As, while in MESA, zip-code level factors, e.g., CWS As and U, contribute 30 and 49% of variation in urine As and U, respectively.

Impact statement: We found that water from unregulated private wells and regulated CWSs is a major contributor to urinary As and U (an estimated measure of internal dose) in both rural, American Indian populations and urban, racially/ethnically diverse populations nationwide, even at levels below the current regulatory standard. Our findings indicate that additional drinking water interventions, regulations, and policies can have a major impact on reducing total exposures to As and U, which are linked to adverse health effects even at low levels.

Keywords: Epidemiology; Exposure modeling; Metals.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arsenic*
  • Atherosclerosis*
  • Biomarkers
  • Humans
  • Prospective Studies
  • Uranium*
  • Water


  • Water
  • Arsenic
  • Uranium
  • Biomarkers

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