Researchers Tackle Challenges of Safe Drinking Water in Mississippi

Interdisciplinary team partners with communities to raise awareness of lead risks

An interdisciplinary team of University of Mississippi researchers is studying the problem of lead contamination in water systems in Jackson and Mississippi Delta communities in an effort to help Mississippi families ensure their drinking water is safe. Adobe Stock photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Recognizing that clean drinking water is a necessity of life, a group of University of Mississippi professors is using community-based research, education and outreach to work with communities in addressing water quality challenges.

Most Mississippians receive their drinking water from a network of more than 1,100 public water systems. The smaller systems serve dozens of people, while larger ones supply tens of thousands of citizens with water. Other Mississippians obtain their water from private wells.

With some of these water systems facing challenges, leaving residents and communities struggling to access clean drinking water, the interdisciplinary UM research team has focused on lead-in-drinking-water issues in both the Mississippi Delta and Jackson, working with several community partners.

Stephanie Showalter Otts

“To date, the research team has primarily focused on education – raising awareness of the lead risks and encouraging behavior change among individuals, including flushing their pipes and using water filters,” said Stephanie Showalter Otts, team member and director of the National Sea Grant Law Center at the UM School of Law.

“We have provided water filters to study participants with elevated lead to help them reduce their risk. We also share the information with community leaders to help them discuss the risks with the public water systems.”

Joining Otts as principals on the research team are John Green, a sociology professor and senior research associate with the university’s Center for Population Studies; Cris Surbeck, associate professor of civil engineering; and Kristie Willett, chair and professor of pharmacology and environmental toxicology in biomolecular sciences in the School of Pharmacy.

“Many communities have water quality problems that don’t automatically get fixed by traditional government resources,” Surbeck said. “As university researchers, we can help educate, communicate and assist with solving a problem when no other resources are available. It’s a pleasure to work with Mississippi communities because of the relationships that we build.”

The team’s research is directly related to human health and intervening to prevent exposure to lead, Willett said.

Kristie Willett

“Water is essential for everyone, and when we turn on the faucet, we expect it to be safe to drink,” she said. “Unfortunately, like the UM 2020 Common Reading Experience selection, ‘What the Eyes Don’t See,’ highlights, lead is something we can’t tell if it is there unless we specifically test for it.

“Given the way water is provided in Mississippi, often from rural water systems or wells, the amount of testing required by the law is limited. So, our research is helping fill those gaps and inform residents so that they can limit their exposure by using filters or buying drinking water.

“We particularly want to protect children, because they are the most susceptible to the neurotoxicity of lead since their brains are still developing.”

The Ole Miss group began exploring how to help Mississippi communities with water challenges in 2017. The Flint, Michigan, water crisis had been an ongoing national news story, and it had been announced that the level of lead in some of Jackson’s water system was higher than federal limits.

Many Mississippians face challenges in obtaining drinking water that is safe and free from contaminants.

The research began in the Mississippi Delta, with researchers receiving a UM grant to work with the Tri-County Workforce Alliance in Bolivar, Coahoma and Quitman counties, along with other nonprofit groups in the broader Delta region. The grant included holding several water sampling events for families of students enrolled in their programming.

“While the results from these pilot sampling events, fortunately, did not detect any residences with high levels, the results of data analysis of public water system testing revealed a number of systems reporting elevated levels of lead in their water, which suggested some serious lead contamination risks,” Otts said.

“We used these initial findings to develop and submit a proposal to the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, which was funded. Through that project, we expanded our sampling and were also able to assess the effectiveness of a variety of engagement methods.”

In the summer of 2018, the research team was approached by the Foundation for the Mid South, which works with Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi communities to enable them to develop solutions to better conditions and improve lives.

The foundation was helping organize the Jackson Water Coalition to bring attention to water quality and infrastructure issues and wanted to include lead in the conversation. To assist, the research team successfully applied for a seed grant through the UM Flagship Constellation initiative.

“The team conducted a series of water sampling and education events to raise awareness of the challenges and what Jackson is trying to do to address them,” Otts said. “The team produced a story map to help residents understand the interconnectedness of these water quality problems.”

John Green

Focusing on lead and drinking water connects several interests, Green said. These include community-based research, interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and addressing environmental and infrastructure issues that affect society and population health.

“Given that the mission of a public university includes teaching, research and service, it is important that we seek out opportunities that allow us to do this work in relation to the lives of Mississippians,” he said.

“Bringing together people and organizations with knowledge, talent and diverse experiences provides the basis for addressing collective issues at numerous scales. This has the potential to improve quality of life.”

The community-based research framework also is powerful because it involves community residents and leaders in the processes of discovery, knowledge creation and application.

Additionally, the interdisciplinary nature of the team allows it to better address the needs of the communities they assist, Surbeck said.

Cristiane Surbeck

“When a community has lead in its drinking water, the problem can’t be solved by an engineer or a sociologist alone,” she said. “It takes a team with diverse disciplines to navigate the legal, health and technical barriers until a solution is found.”

The team’s research is ongoing. Earlier this year, the team launched a new partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health in which the department provides referrals from families of children who have elevated blood lead levels.

“Families receive a sampling kit with instructions on how to collect their tap water and return it to us for testing,” Otts said.

“We are also entering into a partnership with Mississippi State University later this fall on a lead-testing-in-schools project funded by EPA. Our team will be coordinating sampling in the Delta counties.”