Contaminated drinking water raises Jackson, Mississippi school absence rates

April 17, 2023
A research team found a correlation between boil water alters and unexcused absence rates in the public schools of Jackson, Mississippi, showing the effects of water contamination on health.

A team of researchers have published a study, showing how boil water alerts disrupted significantly student learning: Each time an alert was issued, unexcused absence rates in Jackson, Mississippi’s public schools increased between 1% and 10%, according to a press release by Brown University.

Chronic school absenteeism impacts not only a child’s academic record, but also their health and well-being, said lead author Erica Walker, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown. Research shows that chronic absenteeism is associated with increased likelihood of poverty and decreases in mental and physical health.

“We’re talking about much larger repercussions than gastrointestinal illness from drinking unsafe water,” Walker said. “These findings show how chronic exposure to contaminated water over time can negatively affect the trajectory of a child’s life.”

The water crisis in Jackson has made global headlines as a major environmental catastrophe, impacting the health and well-being of residents. The researchers focused on the city’s most vulnerable population: its children.

To conduct the study, the team used data on boil water alerts issued by the City of Jackson’s Water and Sewer Business Administration Office between 2015 and 2021, daily school attendance data from Jackson’s Public School District and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The data showed that each time a boil water alert was issued, unexcused absence rates increased by 1 to 10%.

They also showed decreases in unexcused absences in schools where much of the student body receives free and reduced lunches — likely, Walker said, because the water contamination disrupts at-home meal preparation, so families may instead count on schools to safely provide lunch for children that day.

As the director of the Community Noise Lab at Brown, Walker originally wanted to study the effects of noise pollution on public health in Jackson. However, when the community made clear that the water contamination was a more pressing concern, Walker shifted focus.

She organized a team to set up mobile laboratories across the city to test tap water quality — work that remains ongoing. Separately, Walker partnered with researchers from the University of Mississippi, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and Salem State University to learn more about the effects of contaminated water on community health. They recognized that the ubiquity of boil water alerts would make them an accessible metric that would be understandable to the public.

In the study, the researchers concluded that their analysis highlights the urgency of addressing the root causes of the poor water quality in Jackson. They provide suggestions for how municipalities can more effectively spread the word about contaminated water, including social media posts, voicemails or conducting door-to-door outreach when resources enable it. They also suggested that the Mississippi Department of Health publish a sample press release for local water systems that includes information about the cause of the boil water alert, the population and public schools impacted, and what precautions to take.

The team said the findings could benefit other cities struggling with poor water infrastructure and shed light on the many issues directly and indirectly caused by boil water alerts. Team members from MIT created a data visualization to engage the community both within Jackson and across the world about the research findings.

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