We examined whether the average water residence time, the time it takes water to travel from the treatment plant to the user, for a zip code was related to the proportion of emergency department (ED) visits for gastrointestinal (GI) illness among residents of that zip code. Individual-level ED data were collected from all hospitals located in the five-county metro Atlanta area from 1993 to 2004. Two of the largest water utilities in the area, together serving 1.7 million people, were considered. People served by these utilities had almost three million total ED visits, 164,937 of them for GI illness. The relationship between water residence time and risk for GI illness was assessed using logistic regression, controlling for potential confounding factors, including patient age and markers of socioeconomic status (SES). We observed a modestly increased risk for GI illness for residents of zip codes with the longest water residence times compared to intermediate residence times (odds ratio (OR) for Utility 1 = 1.07, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.03, 1.10; OR for Utility 2 = 1.05, 95% CI = 1.02, 1.08). The results suggest that drinking water contamination in the distribution system may contribute to the burden of endemic GI illness.
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