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Environmental justice implications of arsenic contamination in California’s San Joaquin Valley: a cross-sectional, cluster-design examining exposure and compliance in community drinking water systems

Carolina L Balazs1*, Rachel Morello-Frosch23, Alan E Hubbard2 and Isha Ray1

Author Affiliations

1 Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720, USA

2 School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720, USA

3 Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720, USA

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Environmental Health 2012, 11:84  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-11-84

Published: 14 November 2012



Few studies of environmental justice examine inequities in drinking water contamination. Those studies that have done so usually analyze either disparities in exposure/harm or inequitable implementation of environmental policies. The US EPA’s 2001 Revised Arsenic Rule, which tightened the drinking water standard for arsenic from 50 μg/L to 10 μg/L, offers an opportunity to analyze both aspects of environmental justice.


We hypothesized that Community Water Systems (CWSs) serving a higher proportion of minority residents or residents of lower socioeconomic status (SES) have higher drinking water arsenic levels and higher odds of non-compliance with the revised standard. Using water quality sampling data for arsenic and maximum contaminant level (MCL) violation data for 464 CWSs actively operating from 2005–2007 in California’s San Joaquin Valley we ran bivariate tests and linear regression models.


Higher home ownership rate was associated with lower arsenic levels (ß-coefficient= −0.27 μg As/L, 95% (CI), -0.5, -0.05). This relationship was stronger in smaller systems (ß-coefficient= −0.43, CI, -0.84, -0.03). CWSs with higher rates of homeownership had lower odds of receiving an MCL violation (OR, 0.33; 95% CI, 0.16, 0.67); those serving higher percentages of minorities had higher odds (OR, 2.6; 95% CI, 1.2, 5.4) of an MCL violation.


We found that higher arsenic levels and higher odds of receiving an MCL violation were most common in CWSs serving predominantly socio-economically disadvantaged communities. Our findings suggest that communities with greater proportions of low SES residents not only face disproportionate arsenic exposures, but unequal MCL compliance challenges.

Revised arsenic rule; Arsenic; Drinking water; Social disparities; Environmental justice; Water systems; Safe drinking water act; Exposure