PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When a team led by researchers from Brown University’s School of Public Health tried to gather data about the health effects of the longstanding water contamination crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, little was available, even on the toxicity of the water supply.
So they turned to two sources that were accessible — school attendance records and public safety alerts that advised residents to boil water before use.
Now, the team’s analysis of this information in a study published in Nature Water shows how boil water alerts significantly disrupted student learning: Each time an alert was issued, unexcused absence rates in Jackson’s public schools increased between 1% and 10%.
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, which included graduate students from Brown, 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.