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UM Researchers Work to Identify Lead Contamination in Drinking Water

By Mahfuzul Haque
School of Journalism and New Media Student

An interdisciplinary research team is identifying lead contamination in drinking water in Jackson and the Mississippi Delta by testing the quality of water collected from households and informing them about contamination levels.

Led by Stephanie Otts, director of the National Sea Grant Law Center at the UM School of Law, the team also includes John Green, director of the UM Center for Population Studies, Kristine Willett, professor of Pharmacology and Environmental Toxicology in the UM School of Pharmacy, and Cristiane Surbeck, associate professor in the UM School of Engineering.

The team has partnered with several community organizations, including Tri-County Workforce Alliance, Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, and Mississippi Urban League. These partners organize workshops and invite stakeholders to talk about environmental health, water quality, and lead contamination.

“If residents agree to get their water tested, the community partners then give them a bottle with detailed instructions about collecting water samples,” Green said. The residents take the bottles home and return them filled with water samples. They also complete a survey.

“The research team sends the water samples to a laboratory in the School of Pharmacy and then analyze the survey data at the Center of Population Studies,” Green said.

“Once the test is done, we mail participants a letter describing the level of lead we found and the cautionary measures that members of the household need to take,” Otts said.

Lead, a highly toxic metal that persists and accumulates in a person’s body over time, can be extremely harmful to humans, even at low levels. Exposure in adults can cause brain damage, hypertension, stillbirths, miscarriages, infertility, and kidney disease.

“Infants and young children are the most vulnerable to lead exposure,” Otts said. “Even a low dose can damage a child’s nervous system, affect growth, impair hearing, and cause learning disabilities.”

Some communities in Jackson and the Mississippi Delta are experiencing elevated levels of lead in drinking water. Water pipes connected to households for water supply are often responsible for lead contamination.

“Plumbing system of these neighborhoods is very old, which is making water riskier,” Surbeck said.

The researchers have tested water samples from over 200 households so far.

“Among them, about 5 percent of samples came back with lead levels of public health concern,” Otts said.

Through this project, the team is trying to let community residents know about lead contamination and strategies to combat the exposure to lead.

“We also want to know the best ways of engaging community residents to get their water tested,” Green said.

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