Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Tap water could be linked to dangerous lead levels in Jackson’s kids. Mississippi isn’t keeping track.

Firefighters hand out bottled water during Jackson’s month-long boil water notice. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Children with dangerous levels of lead in their bodies live in parts of Jackson with documented lead-in-water spikes, a Southerly analysis shows. This is the first story in a two-part series.

Frank Figgers’ faucet didn’t produce a single drop of water for 19 days after unprecedented winter storms swept through Mississippi in mid-February, crippling Jackson’s water system. The 71-year-old collected ice from the front yard of his home in West Jackson so he could boil it for cooking or use it to flush the toilet. He hammered into frozen sheets to get potable water, “until all the ice melted — well, until I helped it melt,” he said.

Figgers was one of an estimated 33,000 Jackson residents without running water after the freeze. The inequities of who got water back when are clear to Figgers, who is vice chair of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and local school board member. West and South Jackson — the Blackest and poorest parts of the city, which were the last to have water restored — are always last, he said.

This crisis brings into sharp relief the urgency of addressing the city water system’s most egregious problems, including lead contamination. In 2015, a quarter of homes tested in Jackson had dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water comparable to levels found the year prior in Flint, Mich. Lead-water spikes were highest in two Jackson neighborhoods with older homes that can feel worlds apart: West Jackson, which is under-resourced due to decades of disinvestment and white flight; and the whiter and more affluent northeastern part of town, which is home to the only Whole Foods in the state. 

Jackson officials and the state health department urged parents to test their children for lead. From 2012 to 2016, the Mississippi State Department of Health counted 225 children in Hinds County, home to Jackson, as having dangerous levels of lead in their blood — one of the highest in the state for sheer number and rate of children tested. 

In five years, water results improved significantly: The state health department reported in 2020 that nearly all homes tested in Jackson were under the legal limit for lead. 

Jackson is the only city in Mississippi to look at children’s blood lead tests at the zip-code level — an epidemiology practice employed by most of the nation’s health departments to narrow pools of risk — and the only city in Mississippi that’s implemented targeted lead paint remediation. The state health department analyzes lead exposure in the rest of the state at county-level, which means there isn’t data granular enough to analyze neighborhood specific-risk. 

According to a spokesperson from the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), Mississippi does not cross-reference this lead-in-water data with known lead exposure in children’s blood because they are tracked by separate departments. 

Southerly conducted this analysis, overlaying both databases of MSDH data from the last six years. The results, displayed in a map of Jackson, show that children with dangerous levels of lead in their bodies live in the same parts of town with documented lead-in-water spikes, which could mean leaded tap water has been a bigger source of childhood lead poisoning in Jackson than previously realized. This is the first known effort to map neighborhood-level pockets of risk in Mississippi. 

This map is a culmination of author Erica Hensley’s reporting on lead in Mississippi since 2019.

Experts say that looking for clues that link elevated blood lead levels with lead-contaminated water is the most basic first step to understanding the public health risk of lead in drinking water. If officials cross-referenced the data, the state and its municipalities would know who is most at risk and how to more effectively prevent exposure.

“This map suggests that there are multiple neighborhoods in Jackson where lead in water could be the primary if not sole source of children’s exposures. What are we doing about this?” said Yanna Lambrinidou, professor at Smith College and cofounder of the Campaign for Lead Free Water. “You would think that health departments and water utilities across the country are in the habit of searching for these clues and taking swift action to protect people.”

Yet health departments and water utilities “are in the habit of looking away from such evidence and leaving the most vulnerable — fetuses, infants dependent on reconstituted formula, and young children — at significant risk,” Lambrinidou said. Lead-in-water is highly variable, she added, and due to the nature of singular, small-sample water testing, these mapped results are only a snapshot in time of the true problem, which could be far worse.

The reason this hasn’t been done, according to MSDH, is that no one cross references the databases on children’s blood lead levels and documented lead spikes in drinking water. Using data obtained through a public records request, Southerly presented lead spikes in a single map that could be a tool to help the state conduct street-level interventions when there are known exposures.

A MSDH spokesperson told Southerly the department “can explore if the databases could be interfaced,” but there would be costs to develop it. MSDH did not specify what those costs are; however, the department already maintains the data needed for this analysis. 

“We can present this concept to the Mississippi Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Committee for advice,” the spokesperson said in an email.

There are still major issues with lead in Jackson. Last year’s results showed some lead in the water, with pockets of homes testing well over the legal limit. Only 100 Jackson homes are tested every six months, so the average resident doesn’t know lead levels in their homes. And during the pandemic, fewer children got tested for lead poisoning; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates as many as 10,000 children with lead poisoning went uncounted in the U.S. from January through May 2020.

The “legal limit” for lead is a regulatory standard, not a health one, so some amount of lead can come through the water in pipes and still be legally permissible. But health experts emphasize that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water or anything else ingested. Some say federal regulations of lead levels protect utilities more than residents because they limit transparency: Under EPA regulations, utilities only have to report their systems’ “90th percentile” result (the 9th highest result out of 10 samples, or the 90th highest out of 100) — but not the highest 10% of results. 

The federal rule is “designed to keep people misinformed about the problem and therefore unequipped to protect themselves from exposure,” Lambrinidou said. “It pretends to protect people fully when, at best, it protects them partially and leaves even the most concerned of families in the dark about potential exposures and potential harm they might be putting themselves in.

When there’s major disruption to a water system, more contaminants, including lead, can get in. During the winter freeze, engineer crews couldn’t get water flowing well enough to treat it with chemicals, and trying in vain would be like trying to make sweet tea by dumping raw sugar into cold tea, one utility worker said. The city kept the boil water notice for just over a month, marking the longest extended boil water notice in recent memory. Not until mid-March — 32 days after the storm hit — did the city pass its inspection with the state health department to lift the boil water notice for 160,000 Jacksonians, 82% of whom are Black. 

Charles Williams, head engineer for Jackson Public Works, the city’s water department, told Southerly in early March he was unsure how the crisis would affect ongoing corrosion control efforts to reduce the amount of lead that leaches into drinking water. By the end of the month, once engineers were able to test the water, he said the freeze did not spawn new problems — it just resurfaced old ones. 

Five years ago, Jackson was thrust into the national spotlight for dangerous lead-in-water rates. Approximately a quarter of a nearly 60-home sample detected lead levels higher than the EPA limit. In addition, 90% of all homes tested in 2015 showed some lead in the drinking water, with an average of 16 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA uses 15 ppb as an “action level” cut-off for water utilities. If 10% of homes tested every three years are above that action level, the local water utility has to take corrective action to fix it. 

City officials’ talking points early on claimed that the high results were “home dependent,” deflecting blame by pointing to homeowners’ own leaded plumbing and fixtures. Then, the water utility switched the main treatment plant’s corrosion control from powdered lime treatment to soda ash, both of which are used to reduce pipe corrosivity. Officials say the switch helped balance the pH to be less acidic, and less likely to flake or decay and let lead into the water. 

Like most utilities, Williams said his department doesn’t track state records of childhood lead poisoning in Jackson, and that their primary responsibility is testing surface and well water for contaminants, and a small sample of homes. “I think moving forward, I think we feel pretty confident that we’ll stay within compliance, even as we continue to do more upgrades at the plant and upgrades within the water distribution system itself,” Williams said.

From 2015 to 2019, the zip code where Figgers of West Jackson lives, saw some of the most frequent and highest lead levels from city tests, averaging 28 ppb. He said lead was the most common plumbing material used when many of his neighborhood’s homes were built from the 1950s through the 1970s. When he lost water service in February, Figgers hauled 5-gallon paint buckets back and forth from water distribution sites set up by various non-profits and the city. It reminded him of his youth, when he pulled well water from his grandma’s house 60 years ago. 

From 2017 to early 2020, three other zip codes — 39204, 39206 and 39209 — showed the most children with dangerous levels of lead in their body. Combined, they accounted for two-thirds of all children with high lead levels during that period. All three, which dot the I-20 corridor and are along busy thoroughfares through Jackson, exhibited water-lead spikes in 2015. The city warned pregnant women and young children to not drink the tap water without a filter until through 2018. 

Still, the available data around lead is limited, and doesn’t show the full story. Data released in 2019 to doctors across the state show more than 16,000 children across Mississippi had lead in their blood from 2009 to 2015, but were not counted by the state due to the type of blood test they received. In total, just 15% of children whose blood tests showed high, dangerous lead levels were officially counted by the state and enrolled in its lead prevention program. Of those, just 21 received in-home intervention services in 2019. 

“It is imperative that the public health community takes this type of (neighborhood-level lead) data seriously, develops scientifically rigorous approaches to examining the problem, and uses findings to eliminate exposures in individual buildings and improve water treatment in high-risk neighborhoods,” said lead-in-water expert Lambrinidou.

In 2020, lead per tap in Jackson averaged 6 ppb, based on publicly available data from the state’s Drinking Water Watch report. More than half of the 200 homes tested across Jackson showed some level, averaging 11ppb. Just eight homes, 4% of the total tested, were above the legal limit of 15 ppb. But those eight averaged 123 ppb, which is eight times the action level. 

The EPA calculates averages based on the 90th percentile of all test results, or the 90th highest result out of 100 samples. That was 5 ppb for all 2020 results — down from 2019’s 7 ppb and 2015’s 28 ppb. But the highest result in 2020 was a whopping 786 ppb in one home — 52 times the federal limit. The average across 20 homes with the highest lead levels was 54 ppb, almost four times the legal limit. Based on the EPA’s rule, this high-end result never has to be publicly disclosed. Utilities only have to report the lowest 90% of results. 

Advocates point to this rule as a major flaw that leads to a false sense of reassurance. “(Regulations) do not go far enough to protect children from lead hazards,” said Catherine Lee, outcome broker for Jackson’s arm of the Green and Healthy Home Initiative (GHHI), where she works with community stakeholders to reduce lead exposure. “The EPA, CDC, and HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development), recognize there is no known safe level for lead exposure, so regulatory practices must change to improve the health of our housing and educational facilities.”

The universe of lead risk in Mississippi is still largely unknown. Interventions are limited and patchwork between the city and state; as Williams from the water department said, the databases tracking water testing, potential leaded paint, and their resulting childhood lead exposure do not overlap. The number of blood tests tracking potential exposure in kids has also decreased over the years.

As soon as lead is found, health experts recommend a coordinated prevention and remediation effort. But that rarely happens on a large scale. “Government services at multiple levels are often structured to respond to lead poisoning rather than prevent exposure to this known neurotoxin,” Lee said. 

The latest data from water tests won’t be released until this summer, and children’s blood test results aren’t comprehensive. Lead exposure screenings and tests for young children have dropped across the country during the pandemic, according to the CDC. Research estimates that Mississippi already only identifies fewer than three in ten kids with dangerous levels of lead in their blood — nationwide about 60% are identified. 

Lambrinidou said that even well-meaning public health and utility officials often imply lead spikes might be a concern for only a small universe of homes. “I wish that there was greater appreciation for how important it is to actually truly go above and beyond what’s required by law to not only maintain the best water quality you can,” she said, “but also to be transparent about how widespread lead in water is, aspects of lead contamination you are not addressing, and what people need to do to avoid exposures.”

The National Guard fills buckets of flushing water for Jackson families without running water. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba estimates it will cost $1 to $2 billion to fully update his city’s water system because of its degraded, century-old pipes. This will require state and federal funding assistance. During the winter storm, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who continues a long legacy of white state leadership’s neglect of Black-run Jackson, needed to request federal funding. Instead, he feuded with President Biden after Reeves lifted Mississippi’s mask mandate. Early on, Jackson officials said they were encouraged by the likelihood of federal assistance, but the White House said they had received no such request. Two months after the storm, the state issued a major disaster declaration. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith filed a bill in March that would provide $150 million to an EPA program that provides grants and loan forgiveness to cities and would permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make infrastructure upgrades. But, as the Mississippi Free Press reported last month, Jackson has been authorized to receive $25 million of those funds since 2007, yet hasn’t seen a dime.

Williams said the city just recently began conversations with the EPA to replace any lead service lines that they may encounter upon routine maintenance — part of a program heralded by other cash-strapped cities across the country as a lifeline to reduce lead risk. The next step, according to Williams, is to get plans approved for how the city would go about identifying any lingering legacy lead service lines in the distribution system.

February’s storm revealed these vulnerabilities, experts say — as well as the inequity in response to them. “Unfortunately, for many families in Jackson loss of potable water availability has become all too common because of water main breaks, notices of elevated lead levels, and, in some cases, shutoffs,” said Lee of Green and Healthy Homes. “We hope to support work toward a holistic and sustainable solution so that all families have safe and affordable water services without long-term disruption.”

Figgers, a third-generation Jacksonian, remembers the ice storms of the early 1980s, which had a similar effect on the city’s water distributions. “We vowed that year that every winter we’ll be prepared,” he said. As such, he went into this crisis better prepared than most, dipping into a 200-strong bottled water stockpile. But most people didn’t have that. 

For every Jacksonian to have fair access to clean water, Figgers said, “federal and state financial resources are necessary to help replace and ensure the proper treatment of water and replacement of pipes in rural communities and the other tax-poor communities,” like Jackson.

He said the underinvestment in the safety of neighborhoods is a form of violence. “It is the same as if you take out a gun and shoot another human being,” he said. “Because it’s something that you’ve made a decision not to do because of the amount of resources that had to be extended.” 

If you’re worried about lead in your drinking water, ask MSDH or your water utility to test your water. 

Erica Hensley is an independent journalist based in Jackson, Miss. where she reports on women’s health and regional health disparities. Her previous reporting on lead exposure in Georgia won Atlanta Press Club’s investigative reporting Award of Excellence and spawned the state environmental agency to change how it regulates lead reporting.