How Have Disinfection Byproducts Impacted Eastern Kentucky’s Drinking Water?

drinking water contamination

By Sarah Birnbaum 

New research shows that failing infrastructure causes significant contamination of drinking water in many Eastern Kentucky water systems.  One kind of contamination is disinfection byproducts, which result from the mixing of organic matter and chlorine-based disinfectants during the water sanitation process. Improper maintenance of infrastructure is the main culprit for these violations, as there may be leaks in pipes or low water pressure that can permit organic matter to mix with chlorine, causing these byproducts to form. When consumed or inhaled, disinfection byproducts can yield adverse health impacts, including increased risk for certain cancers in addition to an increased risk for cardiac birth defects. The University of Kentucky, Martin County Concerned Citizens, and Ricky Draper (LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator) recently completed collaborative research in Martin County that found elevated disinfection byproduct levels, with 47% of samples being above the EPA maximum contaminant level (Pratt 2020). Additionally, 99% of residents have had issues with their drinking water including, but not limited to: odor, color, and taste.

To continue this research, I examined disinfection byproduct levels of adjacent counties in Eastern Kentucky through the Kentucky Drinking Water Watch website.  Data analysis demonstrated trihalomethane (THM) was the most frequently elevated disinfection byproduct, often exceeding the EPA maximum contaminant level. Additionally, it was discovered that two other nearby counties hold similar violations to Martin County: Wolfe County (22 violations 2009-2019) and Boyd County (41 violations 2009-2019), bringing up concern for possible disinfection byproduct exposure for residents that reside in these areas. Overall, Martin County still holds significant disinfection byproduct violations, (33 violations 2009-2019). This research has provided a step to address water contamination in Eastern Kentucky and help identify where new infrastructure is likely needed to combat disinfection byproduct contamination. Hopefully, in the near future, Eastern Kentucky residents will have access to clean, safe drinking water free of disinfection byproducts. 


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Sarah Birnbaum, LiKEN Research Assistant

Sarah is a senior at The University of California, Santa Barbara double majoring in Environmental Studies and The History of Art & Architecture planning to pursue a career in Environmental Justice. Within the realm of Environmental Justice, she is especially interested in sustainable community development and public health. Outside of school Sarah enjoys hiking with her German Shepherd, doing yoga, and cooking new meals. She has been excited to be a part of the LIKEN team, having the opportunity to learn from community members, in addition to having the ability to share her knowledge and passion for Environmental Justice with others. 

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