As federal and city officials continue to work to assure residents the water flowing from the troubled Jackson system is safe to drink, distrust among many capital city residents — particularly mothers and caregivers of small children — runs deep.
Regular boil water notices, lack of consistent water pressure and concerns about the safety of drinking the water even when there is not an active boil water notice are commonplace in Mississippi’s largest city.
Multiple federal lawsuits about the city’s recent water quality are pending, and the U.S. Department of Justice last fall acknowledged several major water system problems, including an acknowledgment that the city had consistently not met federal safe water standards. And since 2016, the city has mailed residents quarterly warnings that pregnant women and small children, who are most susceptible to lead poisoning, should follow state and federal safety guidelines before drinking the water.
In recent days, Ted Henifin, the federal appointee to manage the city’s water system, argued that those city notices are no longer necessary after years of clean water tests. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has for months publicly repeated the refrain that the water is safe to drink.
In mid-June, while reiterating the water is safe to drink, Lumumba joined officials at the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center to publicly announce a $100,000 donation to provide water filters specifically for pregnant women and with children under the age of 5.
Meanwhile, many caregivers across the city struggle to trust that the water flowing from the pipes is safe to give their loved ones.
“It’s hard in every way,” said Mary Rooks, a mother of four children under 10, who runs “JXN Motherhood,” an Instagram account that connects mothers across the capital city. “There are so many costs when your children are young … We pay a water bill, so you wouldn’t think you’d have to add an additional cost with water … There are so many factors of mom guilt. You just want to be the best parent of your child — bathing is a pretty simple necessity, and you’re like, ‘Can I bathe them in this water?’”
Rooks says that other parents, including parents of newborns, reached out to her during and after the 2022 Jackson water crisis, which left residents without safe tap water for weeks, to ask about how to handle various water concerns — many of which would likely not even occur to non-parents.
Even after the city-wide crisis passed, a friend with a newborn texted Rooks to ask if it was safe to wash baby bottles in the city’s water. She told them that she thought it should be fine, but the question was indicative of larger struggles parents of young children and babies have faced and continue to face.
“It’s nuts, all the implications that it has,” she said. “Anyone without children wouldn’t have a category for (the difficulties), which is fine — they haven’t been there. But washing bottles is taxing in and of itself, and then add I’m washing bottles with bottled water? It’s ridiculous.
“There’s a lot of responsibilities and hardships of parenthood, and then such a simple thing of water added to that makes it so much more complicated,” Rooks continued. “We pay for water, so it’s like one of those things where we feel like it’s a right as a citizen to have access to clean water, not only for ourselves, but for our families … It’s a simple thing, but when it’s taken away it’s a huge stress added on top of all the million ways you question yourself as a parent.”
‘The baby is extraordinarily susceptible’
During the August 2022 water crisis, some parents used unique methods to ensure their children had safe water to bathe in.
Maisie Brown started the MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team with more than 20 other students at Jackson State University, where she is now a rising senior. The organization — organized almost immediately after Gov. Tate Reeves announced that the city would be without clean, running water “indefinitely” — delivered bottled water to people’s homes.
Though Brown says that the majority of the calls she received were from elderly and/or disabled people, she estimates that roughly 30% of the calls were from mothers of young children. These mothers were hesitant to use the water for bathing or making formula for their babies, even after boiling it.
“You don’t want to put your baby in some water that might have bacteria or microbes in it,” Brown said. “(Adults) barely want to wash our hands with it.”
To help parents with bathing small children, some donation-based organizations like the MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team, asked people to donate not only bottled water, but also baby wipes and products like shower bags, which would allow people to freshen up without fully immersing themselves in contaminated water.
One week, Brown says her organization got a call from a disabled mother of several young children. When a volunteer arrived, she saw that the home was surrounded with buckets that were full of rainwater. The mother had been collecting the rainwater and, after boiling it, used it to bathe her children and flush toilets. She was more comfortable using boiled rainwater than she was using boiled water out of the faucet.
This mother’s continued concerns are not unique, as some parents fear that contaminants in the tap water will be absorbed through their child’s skin.
Dr. Christina Glick is a neonatologist who runs Mississippi Lactation Services, a free-standing breastfeeding clinic in Jackson. She estimates that about 70% to 80% of her clients live in the capital city. Glick says that breastfeeding is “the greatest protection against a crisis like this.”
The people who would be most negatively affected by drinking contaminated water are immunocompromised people and newborn babies. Even if a mother were to get sick from drinking the water herself, Glick says that breastfeeding filters the majority of contaminants out of the milk that babies drink.
Her major concern is for mothers who use formula to feed their babies.
“If the water isn’t clean, the baby is extraordinarily susceptible to even very small amounts of contaminants. It could make them very sick,” she said.
Globally, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death for children under the age of 5. According to the CDC, “about 88% of diarrhea-associated deaths are due to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and insufficient hygiene.”
Despite breastfeeding being the safest option for those who are still concerned about the cleanliness of the water, it is not without issue, nor is it feasible for all parents and caregivers.
The water is ‘yucky’
Nakeitra Burse, owner of Six Dimensions, a public health research, development and practice agency, said that her major concerns with the water crises are how they impact breastfeeding mothers and people who are expecting.
Burse says that not having adequate access to clean, drinkable water could impact mothers’ milk supply. Dehydration can lead to reduced milk supply and to serious pregnancy complications. Water is essential for life at all stages, but it is especially vital when developing a new life, she said.
“For pregnant or postpartum mothers, (water) is really, really important to them being able to provide for their families, provide for their babies, provide for themselves and do whatever they need to produce the milk they need,” she said.
Because babies have such sensitive skin, Burse says she understands parents’ hesitation to use contaminated water for bathing. Not knowing what’s in the water could potentially have long term impacts for infants, she said.
Laurie Bertram Roberts is the executive director and co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. She is also a mother, grandmother and Jacksonian. Her granddaughter, who is a toddler, has never taken a bath in the capital city’s water. She and her family filter her granddaughter’s bathing water through a device that removes lead.
Bertram Roberts says that many of the expectant people with whom she works are already hesitant to use the water in any capacity because “the water looks gross, it smells gross and who the heck wants to put that in their body when they’re carrying a baby to term?”
But, she says, concerns go beyond those for expectant people and young children. Caregivers, in general — those who are helping care for elderly or disabled people — also have reasons to be wary of the water, especially if they are dealing with ailments like bed sores that make them more susceptible to infection.
Her own daughters have eczema, a skin condition that affects nearly 20% of African-American people. According to a 2019 study, Black and Hispanic children are more likely to miss school due to eczema. Bertram Roberts says that her daughters are hesitant to bathe using Jackson’s water in fear of exacerbating their eczema.
For Rooks, it was difficult to explain to her children that they should be drinking water, but that not all water was safe to drink. She and her husband explained to the children that the water was “yucky” and not safe for bathing because the children might potentially get the water in their mouths, or drinking, which led to cognitive dissonance when the family traveled out of town.
“My 7-year-old, he was 5 and 6 at the time, he was pretty receptive,” she said. “But he did think it was weird. We were traveling and getting water out of the sink, and he was like, ‘Why can we drink this water, but we can’t drink the water at home?’”
One of her younger children struggled with the water messaging even more.
“He was utterly confused,” she said. ‘Like, ‘You always tell me to drink more water and now you’re telling me not to drink water?’”
‘Compound issues’ pile up
Though the citywide water crisis has ended, concerns about the long term viability of the city’s water, specifically for young children and expectant mothers, continue. MSDH has issued recommendations for such households including running tap water for one to two minutes before drinking or cooking, not using hot tap water for drinking or cooking and using only filtered or bottled water for baby formula.
But Bertram Roberts thinks that many people, including young children and expectant people, are “probably drinking it anyway because the public health messaging in this city has been inadequate.”
“I think about all of these compound issues because people a lot of time look at it from one issue, like it’s just the lead or it’s just bacteria,” Bertram Roberts said. “But it’s all of those risks and then it’s … with the compound issues of medical racism and lack of health care and issues with access to assistance programs and unemployment issues. All of these compound issues that build on top of, like, just this water issue that make it so much more of a risk and a crisis.”
She notes that many people were unaware about the potential for lead in the water until the lawsuit two years ago — despite the fact that MSDH had acknowledged potential lead concerns about five years prior. She’s also concerned that, though all people should be wary of lead exposure, most of the warnings are only for pregnant people or young children.
The CDC notes that “exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death.”
At a court status conference in June, Henifin, the city’s water system administrator, repeatedly said that the water is safe for everyone, including pregnant mothers and young children. If anything, he said, filters recently provided to pregnant and expecting mothers could make the water less safe if residents don’t change the filters out every four months, which could cause bacteria to build up.
Still, some don’t want to take any chances with their loved ones. Bertram Roberts says that many of the people with whom she works have only been told not to use the water for making formula, but not that their young children should also avoid drinking the water. Even when parents do know to keep their children from drinking the water, she says people should be cognizant of the added costs parents must incur to be able to do so.
“A lot of parents don’t let their kids drink Jackson water, but think of the expense that is to keep up bottled water for a family on SNAP, a big family. It’s expensive to keep up bottled water for thirsty kids,” she said.
Rooks’ family ultimately ended up installing a reverse osmosis device on their kitchen sink. The device is not a solution to ensuring the safety of water from other sources, like bathroom sinks or bathtub spouts, but it does help in making sure the children have access to at least one clean, safe water source. Rooks also recognizes that not everyone can afford to modify their drinking situation.
“Not everybody can do that,” she said. But it is providing comfort to her to know that her children are a bit safer. “Now they can just drink out of this one little spout. We’ve definitely adjusted, but I hate it’s an adjustment that we have to make.”