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To Gauge Maryland’s Drinking Water Quality, Researchers Tap Into the Public

Citizen Science Initiative Will Offer First Statewide Analysis and Database of Drinking Water Contaminants

By Maggie Haslam

two researchers study water quality in lab

Supported by $1.5 million from a UMD Grand Challenges Grant, researchers are conducting the first test of both public and private water sources to tap into Maryland's drinking water quality.

Photo by John T. Consoli

Depending on where Marylanders live, their assurance of safe drinking water isn’t always crystal clear. In some Baltimore neighborhoods, it can be brown. While the city’s drinking water meets federal safety standards when it leaves municipal treatment plants, it might pick up lead, E. coli and other contaminants while flowing through a network of aging pipes before reaching a drinking glass. 

Now, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health are tapping citizens across Maryland to conduct the first statewide analysis of its drinking water. The Maryland Safe Drinking WATER (Water Analysis and Testing for Education and Research) Study will collect and test hundreds of water samples from public drinking water systems and private wells. 

“This study will offer more insight into the level of contaminants in Maryland’s drinking water than ever before, but particularly in underserved areas of the state,” said Assistant Research Professor Leena Malayil. “It’s a critical first step in safeguarding the health and well-being of Maryland communities.” 

Supported by a $1.5 million award from the UMD Grand Challenges Grants program, the Maryland Safe Drinking WATER team includes Malayil, Assistant Research Professor Rianna Murray, Professor Amy Sapkota, Professor Allen Davis, Associate Professor Paul Turner, Postdoctoral Fellow Suhana Chattopadhyay and Program Manager Georgia Parolski. 

Roughly 5.1 million Marylanders get their drinking water from public water systems. Baltimore, which at one point had the most advanced water treatment system in the country, now faces significant challenges around its crumbling infrastructure. In January 2023, drinking water tests revealed a presence of E. coli in a predominantly underserved, West Baltimore community.

But water quality issues trickle across the state. In April, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as “forever chemicals,” were found in 65 of Maryland’s community water systems. The contaminants impacting private wells are less known, which serve over 1 million Maryland residents. 

“There is no federal- or state-level testing of well water in Maryland,” said Murray. “And at the time of this contamination issue happening in the drinking water treatment plant in Baltimore, people were required to boil their water. So why not look into all possible contaminants?”

Nearly 800 residents are enrolled in the study and are currently collecting water samples with easy-to-use test kits provided by the study. In the lab, researchers will test for microbiological contaminants, PFAS and heavy metals such as iron and copper. The study team anticipates that these results can serve as a baseline for further analysis of Maryland’s private and public drinking water sources.

Phase 2 will also include inorganic pollutant analysis and metagenomic sequencing, which assesses the presence of bacterial communities; historically these haven’t been subjects of testing in municipal drinking water.

“There is definitely an interest from the state and the Environmental Protection Agency on these findings, particularly PFAS, where they are still trying to establish a safe limit,” said Malayil. “The hope is that this will spur public policy to better safeguard our water systems.”

Takoma Park resident Meipo Martin said differences in opinion on whether you should drink from the tap, filter through a Brita or just buy bottled spurred her to join the study. News reports about old pipes and water crises, like the one in Flint, Mich., add to the confusion, she said.

“The attitudes, even among my friends, about what is safe to drink are so different,” she said. “So what do I do? I felt like I could just know more by participating.”  

In collaboration with the University of Maryland Extension, the team also aims to lead educational workshops and outreach across the state on well management protocol, guidelines for installing filters, and to promote further citizen science engagement. They hope the study will lead to more widespread standards on drinking water, policy and adoption of best practices. The team hopes to eventually scale it to the entire mid-Atlantic. 

While this research will contribute critical knowledge for the state on water standards, Murray stresses that people shouldn’t fear what’s coming from their taps. Water treatment plants do a great job testing their water and adhere to strict EPA standards, she says, but don’t have the capacity to do the in-depth laboratory analysis that the Maryland Safe Drinking WATER Study will include. The UMD study is more holistic, she said, both in examining a variety of contaminants and of water’s complete journey from its source to your sink. 

“There’s a whole distribution chain at play here, so what they see in the treatment plants might be very different from what we’re seeing in homes,” said Murray. “That’s what we might catch when we finish this study.”



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School of Public Health

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