Biology major Ran Tao could not locate statistics documenting the relationship between drinking water sources and gastrointestinal disease in the region, so she did her own study as part of undergraduate research.

“I have a good friend who was doing research with Healthy Appalachia Institute and I was interested in doing undergraduate research too,” said Tao, a senior at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. “One of my professors had mentioned there were water issues in the area that had occurred due to coal mining runoff and the lack of access to municipal water. I was interested in learning more.”

The rural Appalachian region often prohibits treated town water from being piped into homes, leaving residents to rely on private water supplies such as untreated wells, piped springs or cisterns. Without regular maintenance, testing and treatment, natural pathogens and contaminated wastewater from residents upstream can unknowingly infiltrate these private sources.

“We found there were a lot of people who just didn’t care about treating their water, and we wanted to test to see if there was a correlation between this group and gastro intestinal issues,” Tao said.

A formal survey focused on health history and drinking water sources was developed through a partnership with the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable to document water sources and the prevalence of disorders associated with contaminated private water supplies in the Guest River watershed, a major water quality concern in Wise County.

A randomly selected group of 300 Guest River watershed residents received hard copy and electronic surveys designed to provide information about if and how their method of treating drinking water was correlated to gastrointestinal disorders. A total of 37 completed surveys were returned with six falling outside of the targeted watershed area.

“The average age was 41 years-old,” she said. “Most had lived in their current residence for majority of their life. Five people responded they had been living in their residence for over 40 years.“

Tao found 67.6 percent relied on either municipal/treated water, 10.9 percent had water from a piped spring or cistern and 8.1 percent relied on belowground well water. Seven out of the ten private sources were not treated or filtered in any way prior to household use. More than 40 percent of private water supply users responded that they have experienced diagnosed or unidentified gastrointestinal illnesses in the past year. Two mentioned recurring cases of diarrhea.

“While our low sample size prevented a true statistical analysis of correlations between drinking water sources and gastrointestinal illness, our dataset provides a foundation for a more focused study,” she said. “The fact that several residents who experienced reoccurring gastrointestinal disorders tend to rely on untreated piped spring or well water does suggest that untreated private water systems may be correlated to residents’ gastrointestinal health.”

Tao, who is from Jinan, China, plans to continue her studies in graduate school, focusing on public health. She hopes to eventually work with an international group such as the World Health Organization.