MEDFORD, Mass., Sept. 12 (UPI) -- The water crisis in Flint, Mich., increased awareness of potential problems in water systems across the United States, and a new study reveals a lack of testing, funding and effort at maintaining the cleanliness of the systems poses a nationwide health risk.
Researchers at Tufts University found pathogens in public water systems are taking a toll on the health and wallets of Americans because of the rising cost of treating the increasing number of bacterial infections they cause.
The new study, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, suggests the costs of treating infections may have increased from about $600 million per year to more than $2 billion among Medicare beneficiaries alone.
Some of the infections could be tied to increasing antibiotic resistance. The vast majority of what may be preventable infections, however, could be controlled with targeted disinfection and better surveillance of water systems, say researchers involved with the study.
"The Flint Water Crisis revealed many unsolved social, environmental, and public health problems for U.S. drinking water," Dr. Elena Naumova, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said in a press release. "Unfortunately, water testing for pathogens is not done routinely; furthermore, most water tests are not accessible, are too complicated, or are too costly. Well-controlled, experimental studies of the influence of microbial ecology, disinfectant type, pipe materials and water age on opportunistic pathogen occurrence and persistence are needed in order to establish their relationships to drug resistance."
For the study, the researchers reviewed data on 617,291 cases of opportunistic premise plumbing pathogens among Medicare beneficiaries reported and treated between 1991 and 2006. The researchers focused on Legionella pneumophila, mycobacteriam avium and pseudomonas aeruginosa, all of which can cause respiratory, systemic and localized infections in vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
The majority of infections, 560,504, were related to pneumonia caused by pseudomonas, with 48,854 cases linked to mycobacteria infections and 7,933 cases of Legionnaire's disease. On average, each hospitalization for one of the infections costs $45,840 in Medicare charges and $14,920 in payments. Antibiotic resistance also increases the costs to $60,870 and $16,690 per case, the researchers report.
The researchers estimate all cases of infection cost about $9 billion during the 15-year study period -- about $600 million per year -- with costs potentially reaching $2 billion per year to treat about 80,000 infections.
Though they point out that public drinking water in the United States is relatively safe, if you're healthy, improved surveillance and investigation of outbreaks to discover and clear contamination is needed. At least some portion of this has been caused by cuts to federal drinking water grants and state budgets, limiting funding for investigations and the employees who conduct them, which the researchers say has had "serious implications for states' ability to protect public health."
"Premise plumbing pathogens can be found in drinking water, showers, hot tubs, medical instruments, kitchens, swimming pools -- almost any premise where people use public water," Naumova said. "The observed upward trend in associated infections is likely to continue, and aging water distribution systems might soon be an additional reservoir of costly multidrug resistance. This is a clear call for deepened dialogue between researchers, government agencies, citizens and policy makers, so that we can improve data sharing and find sustainable solutions to reduce the public health risks posed by these bacteria."