The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Lead in Water Series: Meet the UM Team

  • April 12th, 2021 — by Taylor Harris — Category: Water Quality

  • The first time that I considered the dangers of lead poisoning was during a presentation in elementary school. I did’t understand exactly what lead was, but I did gather that my safety absolutely depended on being suspicious of any inclinations to ingest paint and keeping a safe distance from any mishaps with my #2 pencil. I’ve found since then that all paint (not just lead based) is pretty unappetizing and that pencils aren’t actually made with lead, it’s just in the name.

    Hypochondriac that I was, it’s probably best I didn’t know at the time that lead can actually be found almost anywhere – in paint, yes, but it can also be in the soil outside or even in our drinking water. Drinking water is an underappreciated source of lead exposure in children and it can have serious consequences for them especially. There is no known safe exposure level to lead. Even in small amounts, lead can build up in the blood over time.

    The UM Lead in Drinking Water Project launched in 2017 and it takes a community-engaged, research-based approach to address lead in water-related health gaps in the state. The UM Lead Project is headed by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Mississippi. Water quality challenges in Mississippi are somewhat unique because of its mostly rural nature and highly decentralized water distribution system. Our research seeks to draw on and integrate various areas of expertise to tackle this complex public health issue and our team structure incorporates the intellectual resources needed to answer the “Who”, “When”, and “How” of lead exposure from drinking water.

    The Toxicologist!
    Dr. Kristie Willett is a professor of Pharmacology and Environmental Toxicology and the Chair of the Department of BioMolecular Sciences. Her areas of expertise include developmental and environmental toxicology. Dr. Willett oversees on-campus lab testing for the UM Lead Project. Her expertise provides our research with an understanding of what happens in the body after it’s exposed to lead in drinking water.

    The Engineer!
    Dr. Cristiane Surbeck is a professor of Civil Engineering and Associate Dean of Academics for the School of Engineering. Her research is primarily focused on how our water, air and soil are affected by pollutants and how risk from those pollutants can be best mitigated. As a civil engineer, Dr. Surbeck has extensive knowledge on the “how” of lead in water. For our research, it is necessary to consider how public water systems provide water to their consumers, and how each aspect of that process might affect lead exposure in our communities.

    The Sociologists!
    Dr. John Green is a professor of Sociology and Senior Research Associate with the Center for Population Studies. He has extensive experience with community-based research projects and is most interested in community resilience, health and well-being disparities, and the challenges or successes of rural communities. Dr. Green’s expertise helps us provide service agencies and organizations with demographic and socioeconomic analysis on “who” is disproportionally affected by a lack of access to clean drinking water and that accurately reflects needs in the community.

    Dr. Vanessa Parks is a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Population Studies. Dr. Parks’ research focuses on the relationships between health and the environment, particularly in the context of disasters and slow-onset environmental crises. She contributes to UM Lead Project research by providing a sociological perspective with both research and outreach.

    The Lawyers!
    Stephanie Otts is the director of the National Sea Grant Law Center. Catherine Janasie is Research Counsel II (Sr.) with the Law Center. Both are attorneys specializing in natural resource, marine, and environmental law. Their expertise provides the UM Lead Project with a clear and concise understanding of what the government legally requires from its agencies, public water systems, and consumers when lead in drinking water exposure is concerned.

    There’s rarely one single reason why a person, home, or community is affected by lead exposure, even when the medium for exposure is narrowed down to a specific source like drinking water. Water with lower pH can cause lead to leach from plumbing materials, but homeowners can’t control the pH of their water unless they are on a private well. Public water systems take steps to control corrosion, but don’t know what types of pipe and fixtures are inside the homes they serve. Increased water sampling and analysis of existing data is needed to identify potential “hot spots” with increased lead risks. In addition, increased outreach to community members and policy makers is needed to raise awareness and improve policies to reduce exposure. In the next installment of this series, I’ll explore the team’s community-based research approach.

    This blog post is Part 1 in a 5-part series exploring the work of the UM Lead in Drinking Water Project Team.

  • Taylor Harris
    North Mississippi VISTA Member with UM Lead in Drinking Water Project

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