Contaminated drinking water linked to birth defects

The children of women exposed to contaminated drinking water during pregnancy are more likely to be born prematurely - or with low birth weights - and experience lifelong cognitive difficulties, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs compared ten years of New Jersey birth records to data on drinking water quality between 1997 and 2007.

Over that period, more than a quarter of the state's water districts experienced chemical or bacterial contamination, with substances like dichloroethane, radon and coliform entering water supplies used by more than 30,000 people.

The study found that infants exposed to these contaminants in utero were affected by a host of problems, including birth weights below 5.5 pounds and developmental impairments.

It also discovered that younger, less educated women - often unmarried and African-American or Hispanic - were more likely to live in areas with contaminated drinking water.

The researchers hypothesised that these women have fewer options in terms of where to live and might not always receive notice that their water is contaminated due to routing difficulties.

"If it's going to be harmful for some groups, we need to at least let those groups know about them, so they can avoid it," said lead author Janet Currie.