If you ask Mississippians about their tap water, many will say they are concerned about lead.
Those concerns echo anecdotal stories from friends, warnings from municipalities for pregnant women and young children not to drink the water and national news stories from places like Flint, Michigan.
An investigation by Consumer Reports and Mississippi Spotlight, a collaboration of the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today and other news organizations, found detectable levels of lead in all 149 municipal and well water samples from all corners of Mississippi, covering all counties in the state. Three of those cases were in Jackson. That said, just one sample, from Carroll County, near Greenwood, rose above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level.”
The EPA sets its lead limits for tap water based on parts per billion, or ppb. If lead levels exceed 15 ppb in more than 10% of homes, the federal regulator sounds the alarm. Residents are notified, and those that are pregnant, nursing and young children are told to avoid the water.
Test results found just one location with a lead ppb above the action level. A private well system in Carroll County showed the highest level in the state, at 18.3 ppb. After being notified of the high level, the owner of the well did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, but the person who performed the test did.
Emily Roush-Elliott is the “Social Impact Architect” at Delta Design Build Workshop, which works to “develop safe, healthy, and dignified affordable housing and economic opportunity” in the Mississippi Delta, according to its website. As part of that work, Roush-Elliott became a certified lead tester, in order to test locations before construction or contracting work.
The private well was located about eight miles outside of Greenwood city limits, Roush-Elliott said, and she was surprised that the testing revealed such a high result there.
“I know it’s so expensive,” Roush-Elliott said. “(They), five or six years ago, had pretty significant work done on their well, so I’m surprised to hear that it got back with positive results.”
Lead can find its way into private well water from a number of sources, including from internal home plumbing or well components.
In Jackson, a federal judge has allowed a lawsuit to move forward with about 1,000 children diagnosed with lead poisoning suing the city and state Department of Health. As the water system there has been the subject of national headlines, some residents, and at least one college and a hospital, have decided to turn to private wells.
Jackson residents remain warned of lead levels over the EPA action level, but the city’s third party water administrator, Ted Henifin, has said his team had not found any lead pipes since it took over the system last fall, at least as of June.
“As far as we know, we haven’t found any yet,” Henifin said at a June forum sponsored by Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps. Henifin did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
At the forum, Henifin also said his team, JXN Water, have hired BlueConduit, a data analytics company that worked with Flint to locate lead service lines using algorithms.
Testing by Consumer Reports and Mississippi Spotlight found all three Jackson addresses sampled had detectable lead levels, with three addresses above 1 ppb, though all were below the action level. Experts, including some involved with crafting the EPA regulations, often note that no level of detectable lead is safe, and that the action level is not based on health outcomes.
There are other figures, too. The limit allowed by the Food and Drug Administration in bottled drinking water is 5 ppb, three times less than the EPA action level. None of the Jackson samples rose above that level either. Two samples in the state, one in Quitman and one in Olive Branch, were higher than the 5 ppb mark, but lower than the action level. The residents of those samples did not respond to requests for comment either.
Cecilia Bullock’s house had the highest amount of lead of any of the Jackson samples, at 4.76 ppb, just below the bottled water limit. Bullock said she’s often heard concern from friends and family about Jackson water, but that she’s trusted it and drank it, even through boil water notices.
“If it’s brown, I don’t drink it,” Bullock said. “If it’s yellow or brown, I don’t drink it, but if it’s clear I am going to drink it … I’ve had it looking like coffee or looking like tea, but, if it’s clear, I’m drinking it.”
As for the lead, Bullock said it’s likely due to pipes inside or underneath her house.
“It could be the age of my house, built in 1931, which I’m sure has had a lot of pipe replacement, but not all of it,” Bullock said.
Roush-Elliott also tested her own house, which is on the Greenwood municipal water system, and which returned no signs of lead.
“I’m not from Mississippi, but I’ve been here in Greenwood for a decade. Usually we have bad news, and on this front I think it’s good. I think people have a really positive relationship with their drinking water here,” Roush-Elliott said. “I would have a lot more doubts about private wells and how they’re maintained and things like that than I do about Greenwood’s water system. I’m sort of shocked to be saying that, but this is something that I feel like seems to be working well. I drink the water directly from the tap, and I enjoy it.”
In other areas, like in the state’s capital city, there is a far greater level of distrust.
Henifin has said one of his primary jobs is to build back trust among Jackson residents.
“It’s going to take a couple of years of consistent water at their taps every time they turn them on, no issues popping up anywhere, it’s going to take a long time to rebuild trust in the water,” Henifin said in an interview with the Clarion Ledger about the annual water quality report JXN Water released in July.
In a separate series of tests, performed by Clarion Ledger staff last year, seven of 17 samples had detectable levels of lead, though none was above the action level and only one was above the 5 ppb bottled water limit.
Roush-Elliott said she has concerns about lead being detected by regulatory authorities in a timely manner, related to her experiences becoming a lead inspector. Delta Design Build Workshop is required to perform lead abatement procedures, but there were so few people in her area able to do the work that she decided to get trained on it herself.
“I have a lot more insight on that than most people. It also makes me realize how few people there are in this area. The fact that we can’t subcontract that out cost-effectively, that it was actually cheaper for me to go and get the training and certification, shows how little oversight there is,” she said. “We have a great relationship with our code enforcement office here in Greenwood, but we know that they are understaffed, and we know that we have significantly more code oversight than the vast majority of neighboring communities.”
This lack of oversight leaves her concerned that lead exposure may slip through the cracks in some places.
This investigation was conducted by Consumer Reports in partnership with Mississippi Spotlight, a collaboration between Mississippi Today, the Clarion Ledger and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.