Professor, Students Sampling Well Water to Assess Environmental Risks

Collecting water samples in front of a Manchester store, an Eastern Kentucky University student is proud of the work he is doing in Southeast Kentucky.

“Knowing we are helping people increase their knowledge about something that impacts them daily is the most amazing and rewarding feeling I’ve ever had,” said senior environmental health science major Josh Ruehl.

Ruehl, from Richmond, has joined Dr. Jason Marion, an assistant professor of environmental health science at EKU, in testing heavy metal concentrations in Kentucky wells. Over this summer, Ruehl and five other students are working with Marion to quantify the levels of selected metals in household well water and spring water, focusing on arsenic, lead, manganese and several other contaminants.  The team already has spent many hours collecting samples in front of approved store locations in Manchester, Hazard, Whitesburg, and Harlan.

“This is among the first research studies examining metal concentrations in the drinking water wells of central Appalachia,” said Marion. “I am happy EKU is supporting us in this important endeavor, and I am optimistic our results will gradually improve the quality of life for many folks.”

EKU students Tabitha Owens of Manchester and Amber Kittoe of Berea are equally passionate about the project, which is funded by the Center for Appalachian Regional Engagement and Stewardship (CARES) at EKU.

“In an area of the country that has consistent economic struggles, most people with well water cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars for a single test,” said Owens, a Master of Public Health student.

As a local resident and high school science teacher, Owens said she is honored to do this kind of work.

“When we're out in the communities, I see how concerned people really are about what they're drinking,” she said, “and I feel very honored to be able to educate them about their water conditions.” 

Marion said that, “without EKU’s support, the residents of some of southeast Kentucky’s most rural areas would not have this important health issue independently investigated.”

Additionally, the region’s future environmental health scientists are getting hands-on experience. Kittoe, a senior environmental health science major, said she has “really enjoyed this experience. It is hands on, as we are able to test the water ourselves and see the results immediately.”

The experience is equally rewarding for the student researchers. “It is a great feeling knowing that we are able to help these people receive this service free of charge,” Kittoe said.

Beyond student training, results from the project will be used to pursue additional research opportunities if needed and to possibly encourage the expansion of treated water systems. If significant problems are identified, Marion says he will encourage additional investigation into potential causes of contamination. 

To participate in the project, households should contact Marion at 606-681-5108. The student and faculty team will be collecting 200 to 300 water samples from Clay, Harlan, Leslie, Letcher, and Perry Counties. Most of the samples are collected by meeting the team at area stores or by household pick-up. The team already has analyzed more than 60 water samples. The cost is free, as the project is funded with EKU grant support. The team does ask participants to be 18 or older and to take part in a brief health questionnaire.

Fifty-eight students are currently enrolled in the Master’s of Public Health program at EKU, which also boasts the nation’s second largest undergraduate program in Environmental Health Science. The program sponsor, EKU’s Center for Appalachian Regional Engagement and Stewardship (EKU CARES), is committed to serving the 22 counties of south-central and southeastern Kentucky.  For more information about EKU CARES, visit regionalstewardship.eku.edu.

Published on July 12, 2013