Reducing Emergency Department Visits for Acute Gastrointestinal Illnesses in North Carolina (USA) by Extending Community Water Service.


We estimated the total number of emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) attributable to microbial contamination in private wells in North Carolina per year, the costs of those visits, and the potential health benefits of extending regulated water service to households currently relying on private wells for their drinking water.

Previous analyses have suggested that unregulated private drinking water wells carry a higher risk of exposure to microbial contamination than regulated community water systems. In North Carolina, ~35% of the state's population relies on private wells, but the health impact associated with widespread reliance on such unregulated drinking water sources is unknown.

An estimated 29,400 (95% CI: 26,600, 32,200) emergency department visits per year for acute gastrointestinal illness were attributable to microbial contamination in drinking water, constituting approximately 7.3% (95% CI: 6.6, 7.9%) of all AGI-related visits. Of these attributable cases, 99% (29,200; 95% CI: 26,500, 31,900) were associated with private well contamination. The estimated statewide annual cost of emergency department visits attributable to microbiological contamination of drinking water is 40.2 million USD (95% CI: 2.58 million USD, 193 million USD), of which 39.9 million USD (95% CI: 2.56 million USD, 192 million USD) is estimated to arise from private well contamination. An estimated 2,920 (95% CI: 2,650, 3,190) annual emergency department visits could be prevented by extending community water service to 10% of the population currently relying on private wells.

DeFelice NB, Johnston JE, Gibson JM. 2016. Reducing emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illnesses in North Carolina (USA) by extending community water service. Environ Health Perspect 124:1583-1591;

We developed a population intervention model using 2007-2013 data from all 122 North Carolina emergency departments along with microbial contamination data for all 2,120 community water systems and for 16,138 private well water samples collected since 2008.

This research provides new evidence that extending regulated community water service to populations currently relying on private wells may decrease the population burden of acute gastrointestinal illness.

MIDAS Network Members