Startlingly high levels of lead found in Mississippi capital's water
A child drinking water (Shutterstock)

Startlingly elevated levels of lead were found in the water in Mississippi’s capital in June, but a warning was not issued by government officials until January, the Guardian has learned – a contamination that bears some resemblance to the crisis in Flint, Michigan.

As with Flint, the problem in Jackson appears to be related to inadequate corrosion control, and the months of delay in state action raises shades of Flint, something that Michigan governor Rick Snyder will testify on before a congressional committee on Thursday.

An astonishing 22% of homes in Jackson, Mississippi, exceeded the federal “action” lead level of 15 parts per billion, according to government tests done in June. Compare that with Flint, where researchers from Virginia Tech sampled hundreds of homes as residents begged for help and found 16.7% of homes exceeded the federal “action” lead level, though the sampling methodology may be different in the two cases.

But Mississippi officials did not notify the city of Jackson of the results until January, and it was not until February that the state issued a warning for pregnant women and small children. A sampling of 101 homes in January and February this year showed 11% of homes above the federal lead limit – a number that is still worrisome, under federal regulations.

The residents of Jackson are stunned.

“I know women were pregnant in that six months, and drinking lots of water,” said 35-year-old MacArthur Eppps, who lives in the working-class neighborhood of Willowood. He held his palms up, and shrugged. “How much lead? Who knows?”

Epps recently gathered a transfer-truck’s worth of bottled water to send to Flint, Michigan. “Now some of us are thinking we should have put some of that water aside,” he said. “Flint is in the news, but we’ve got problems right here.”

Lead levels in some Jackson homes were startlingly high. In the sampling from January and February of this year, one home was found to have 476 parts per billion. That’s more than 30 times the EPA’s action level of 15ppb. Other homes tested at 106 ppb, 62 ppb, 58 ppb, and 50 ppb. Last June, the highest figures for Jackson were 128 ppb, 101ppb, and 96ppb, numbers that are higher than previously reported.

Officials from Jackson and the state of Mississippi believe the high lead levels were a short-term event. “We have every reason to believe this was a transient issue,” said Mary Currier, a state health officer, at a press conference in late January, shortly after the state notified the city of the problem.

Kishia Powell, director of public works for the city of Jackson, said that officials believe the issue was “possibly related to how the water chemistry reacted to the plumbing at that particular time.” The homes that tested too high last June showed less lead in the January tests.

“Our issue stems from the fact that our corrosion control system at the plan needs to be upgraded, optimized,” Powell said at a February press conference. The water provided by the city does not contain lead, she said; instead, it’s how the water chemistry reacts with the pipes and fixtures at homes, which often contain lead.

The city of Jackson changed water sources in the summer of 2014, when it stopped using a well system as part of its water supply, according to The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson’s newspaper. It switched back to using the well system in July.

Jackson officials say the water is not “unsafe” to drink, even as they advise pregnant women and small children not to drink it.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency says there is no safe level of exposure to lead, notes Cathy Janasie, research counsel at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Whether the water is safe is a “very tricky question”, she said. “On a city-wide basis, some places may hit a lot higher than other houses. It may be safe in some places, it may not be safe in other places.”

Mississippi state officials say they did not notify Jackson officials sooner about last June’s high lead levels because of the way they comply with federal regulations. The EPA instructs that sampling should be done every three years, and the state says it did not tally up its figures for Jackson until January, even though it got the sample results back in July.

It is not a difficult calculation to make. To determine whether a city water system is in compliance with federal lead restrictions, tests are run on a set of homes every three years. If 90% of the homes contain water with less than 15 parts per billion of lead, the city is declared to be in compliance. It’s a simple spreadsheet calculation, in other words.

“These results would fit in one page – so you can totally eyeball it,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, an affiliate faculty member in science, technology and society at Virginia Tech.

In Jackson last June, 90% of homes were below 28 parts per billion of lead, according to Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Health. In the Flint water survey conducted by Virginia Tech, 90% of homes were below 25 parts per billion.

By this measure, in other words, more of Jackson’s water samples contained high lead levels than Flint’s. However, the comparison may be inexact because Jackson authorities may have been sampling the “worst-case” homes, with lead pipes, whereas the Virginia Tech researchers sampled a variety of homes, not just “worst-case”.

The Guardian was unable to reach Jackson’s public works director, and therefore unable to inquire whether Jackson samples had in fact been taken from homes at high risk for lead, and without pre-flushing the taps. Pre-flushing can make lead levels seem lower than a standard test measurement.

Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech said that even though the recent figures for lead in Jackson are lower than in June, there is still plenty of cause for concern. Samples taken in the wintertime tend to show less lead than in the summer, due to the summer heat increasing lead uptake. So come summer, Jackson’s numbers – already high enough to trigger corrective action – could conceivably grow worse again.

Fixing the problem will cost $1 to $1.2m, which may come from the city’s general fund, according to Sheila Byrd, the communications director for the Jackson mayor. She wrote in an email that another round of lead testing had not yet been planned. “However, the city will be testing its water every six months,” she said.

Mississippi health officials say there is no sign of a spike in lead levels in children who have had their blood tested.

The Mississippi Department of Health will change its policies so that it notifies homeowners immediately if the lead in their water samples exceeds the EPA’s action levels, according to Sharlot. The health department has an office in Jackson, and she said she and her colleagues often drink water from the tap.

Some officials in Jackson, where potholes can seem as large as sink holes, really, swallowing half the road, see a deeper issue of neglect, like has been charged in Flint.

“We really need to look at the politics that are affecting our ability to make safety a priority for our citizens,” said Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, at a press conference.

“What’s similar is, we have a red state and a blue city. We have a Republican governor and a Republican governor. You have a majority-black city and a majority-black city,” said De’Keither Stamps, a city councilman in Jackson, at the same press conference. However, he added, “Mississippians help Mississippians… And I believe our state leadership is different from the Michigan [leadership].

Meanwhile, concerned Jackson residents are reckoning with the cost of testing their own water. Epps, the Willowood resident, takes care of his elderly uncle. For someone like that, he said, the $15 for a lead-testing from a hardware store is too much. “He’s on a fixed income, so for him that $15 is a choice,” Epps said. “It’s either a testing kit, or it’s his medicine.” © Guardian News and Media 2016