Approximately 165 million children aged <5 years are at risk of low height-for-age. This study explored whether water quality and distance to water source affected short- and long-term growth, and the critical time windows of such effects.
This study used data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS), which was a cohort study performed in 15 Chinese provinces.
Data from the CHNS between 1989 and 2011 were examined. Three cohorts of children who were enrolled at 0-2 years of age in 1989, 1993, and 2000 provided sufficient data for this study. Child height was measured by physicians, and household water supply, including the water quality (safe or unsafe) and distance to the source (in-yard or out-yard), was assessed using a questionnaire when the children were 0-2, 4-6, and 11-13 years of age. Multiple regressions were performed to analyse the associations between water quality and distance to the source at various ages, and height at that age and older ages, with and without adjusting for the household water supply at previous ages. Multiple informant models were created using a generalised estimating equation and these were used to assess whether the exposure coefficients were equal across the three age periods.
A total of 1192 children were included. Water quality was not significantly associated with height over the three age periods. An out-yard water source at the age of 0-2 years was not associated with child height at that age, but it was inversely associated with child height at ages 4-6 and 11-13 years (β = -1.605, 95% confidence interval [CI]: -2.490 to -0.720, and β = -2.817, 95% CI: -4.411 to -1.224, respectively), after adjusting for sociodemographic and economic covariates and baseline child height. Distance to the water source at age 4-6 and 11-13 years was not significantly associated with height. However, significant differences were observed in the associations between distance to water source across the three age periods and height at age 4-6 and 11-13 years (p = 0.064 and 0.069, respectively).
Distance to the water source in early, but not later, childhood exerted a long-term effect on child height. When the water quality is good, efforts should be made to shorten the distance to the source to improve child health and growth.

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