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Arsenic in private well water part of 3: Socioeconomic vulnerability to exposure in Maine and New Jersey
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    Arsenic is a naturally occurring toxic element often concentrated in groundwater at levels unsafe for human consumption. Private well water in the United States is mostly unregulated by federal and state drinking water standards. It is the responsibility of the over 13 million U.S. households regularly depending on private wells for their water to ensure it is safe for drinking. There is a consistent graded association with health outcomes at all levels of socioeconomic status (SES) in the U.S. Differential exposure to environmental risk may be contributing to this persistent SES-health gradient. Environmental justice advocates cite overwhelming evidence that income and other SES measures are consistently inversely correlated with exposure to suboptimal environmental conditions including pollutants, toxins, and their impacts. Here we use private well household surveys from two states to investigate the association between SES and risks for arsenic exposure, examining the potentially cumulative effects of residential location, testing and treatment behavior, and psychological factors influencing behavior. We find that the distribution of natural arsenic hazard in the environment is socioeconomically random. There is no evidence that higher SES households are avoiding areas with arsenic or that lower SES groups are disproportionately residing in areas with arsenic. Instead, disparities in exposure arise from differing rates of protective action, primarily testing well water for arsenic, and secondly treating or avoiding contaminated water. We observe these SES disparities in behavior as well as in the psychological factors that are most favorable to these behaviors. Assessment of risk should not be limited to the spatial occurrence of arsenic alone. It is important that social vulnerability factors are incorporated into risk modeling and identifying priority areas for intervention, which should include strategies that specifically target socioeconomically vulnerable groups as well as all the conditions which cause these disparities in testing and treatment behavior.

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