Editor’s Note: Cindy Hu is a winner of The Story Exchange’s first annual Women In Science Incentive Prize.
Cindy Hu remembers her thirst when she was a child on a hot summer day in China. All she wanted was some cool water to drink, but since the tap water wasn’t potable, she had to wait for her parents to boil water and for it to cool down before she could take a sip.
When Hu arrived in the United States for graduate studies, she was amazed at how people could drink straight from the tap — and how little people thought about what was in their water. She became particularly interested in the human health risk assessment aspect of environmental science — all those tiny amounts that created regulations and standards. She wanted to know how those numbers came about. “Why is it okay to have a drinking water contaminant be present at, say, 5 micrograms per liter but not 10?” she says she asked. “I was just really interested in that from the research side of things.”
She has honed in on researching a problem that has poor data but is of vital importance: the lack of drinking water monitoring data that can lead to harm to human health. For example, Hu’s doctoral thesis at Harvard shows that contaminated drinking water disproportionately affects the poor, especially when it comes to a class of chemicals known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals.”
Private drinking water wells, she says, which mostly serve rural and underserved areas, are more polluted than public water supplies due to proximity to pollution sources. About 43 million people rely on self-supplied water sources, which are not subject to the same level of testing as large drinking water treatment plants would be under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In 2018, Hu and collaborators created a website — Whatisinmywater.org — that offers people an intimate view of the substances in their water supply. She says it’s designed to be a one-stop resource for information on contaminant occurrence, health impacts and solutions.
She says that over the past 30 years, the U.S. has poured resources and attention into the problem of air pollution — now, there’s a comprehensive air quality management network that feeds information to a smartphone widget, telling people the air quality index in their particular location. Hu says she is inspired by this pioneering work.
Water quality has many more factors at play, but it is also of vital importance. Among the over 80,000 chemicals used in industry and commerce, researchers only have good toxicology data on a few hundred and the government only regulates 96, she says. More information could help the problem. Hu wants to make this invisible problem more visible — especially to consumers.
“Tap water in itself is a great source of hydration,” says Hu. “So we definitely don’t want all these studies about drinking water quality scaring people away because we also know that bottled water is not necessarily better. But it’s really important to make the information available so that consumers can make the best decisions.”
Hu is optimistic that the monitoring and management of drinking water quality will accelerate in the next decade. She envisions a world where forever chemicals like PFAS are more regulated and where models can predict water quality issues ahead of time, so regulators can collect samples and monitor specific areas, she says. “I’m building toward this vision of being able to elaborate better the link between drinking water quality and human health.”