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Social Disparities in Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water in Californiaâs San Joaquin Valley

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Background: Research on drinking water in the United States has rarely examined disproportionate exposures to contaminants faced by low-income and minority communities. This study analyzes the relationship between nitrate concentrations in community water systems (CWSs) and the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic characteristics of customers.

Objectives: We hypothesized that CWSs in California’s San Joaquin Valley that serve a higher proportion of minority or residents of lower socioeconomic status have higher nitrate levels and that these disparities are greater among smaller drinking water systems.

Methods: We used water quality monitoring data sets (1999–2001) to estimate nitrate levels in CWSs, and source location and census block group data to estimate customer demographics. Our linear regression model included 327 CWSs and reported robust standard errors clustered at the CWS level. Our adjusted model controlled for demographics and water system characteristics and stratified by CWS size.

Results: Percent Latino was associated with a 0.04-mg nitrate-ion (NO3)/L increase in a CWS’s estimated NO3 concentration [95% confidence interval (CI), –0.08 to 0.16], and rate of home ownership was associated with a 0.16-mg NO3/L decrease (95% CI, –0.32 to 0.002). Among smaller systems, the percentage of Latinos and of homeownership was associated with an estimated increase of 0.44 mg NO3/L (95% CI, 0.03–0.84) and a decrease of 0.15 mg NO3/L (95% CI, –0.64 to 0.33), respectively.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that in smaller water systems, CWSs serving larger percentages of Latinos and renters receive drinking water with higher nitrate levels. This suggests an environmental inequity in drinking water quality.

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