The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Lead in Water Series:
    Research in Our Communities

  • April 16th, 2021 — by Taylor Harris — Category: Water Quality

  • Some questions are better left unasked. For example, you probably shouldn’t ask your doctor how much student loan debt they’ve accumulated, and it’s probably not the best idea to ask the chef at a restaurant what their secret recipe is. Other questions you flat out might not want to know the answer to, like whether something (or nothing) is moving around in the dark when everyone is supposed to be out for the night. But what about whether lead is leaching into your drinking water? A boogeyman in its own right, lead in your drinking water is concerning and only begs other elusive questions, like “how did it get into my water in the first place?”

    A part of the challenge in addressing lead exposure from drinking water is consumers not knowing to ask if lead affects their water in the first place. Or, if they are aware of the dangers of lead in drinking water, not having a trustworthy source to inquire about the status of their taps. The UM Lead in Drinking Water Project uses community-based research to help Mississippi residents find out more information about their drinking water. With funding from the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, the UM Lead Project held 11 collection events in the Mississippi Delta over the course of two years (Sept. 2016 – Oct. 2018) to inform and engage the community. These events were hosted by various community partner organizations, including community health centers, a hospital-affiliated wellness center, churches, and a Mississippi State University Extension private well program. We even set up a booth at the Hot Tamale Festival!

    Lead exposure is hard to detect because signs and symptoms don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated in the blood. Through our sampling events, we shed a little light on the lead boogeyman by distributing 302 bottles and surveys to participants in 13 counties. We also advocated for our participants to try proven, low-cost methods of reducing lead exposure like flushing water on cold for 30 seconds before using, and to avoid cooking preparing formula, or drinking from hot tap water.

    215 sample bottles were returned to the UM Lead Project for testing. The good news is that all of the returned water samples the UM Lead Project tested had lead concentrations below the 15 parts per billion (ppb) Action Level established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Lead and Copper Rule. However, nearly two-thirds of the samples had at least some detectable lead. Forty-one of the 215 samples (19.2%) had concentrations of 1 ppb or higher. This is significant because the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates for a 1 ppb limit for water fountains in schools. Nine samples exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s bottled water limit of 5 ppb, and we provided those homeowners with a water filter free of charge.

    Our research findings indicated that community-engaged research and outreach could be used to address data gaps relating to lead in drinking water in rural decentralized water systems like those in Mississippi. The age of housing is generally considered a potential risk factor, given that the use of lead in plumbing materials was permitted until 1986. Additionally, because private wells are the responsibility of the homeowner, they are not subject to the testing and corrosion control measures required by the EPA and Safe Water Drinking Act. This is concerning, as the highest lead concentrations seen in our study came from homes that obtained their drinking water from private wells.

    These factors were associated with the samples in our study with the higher lead levels, but they are not the only reasons why lead might be in your water. In 1986, Congress prohibited the use of plumbing materials that were not “lead free.” While you would be forgiven for believing otherwise, “lead free” does not actually mean zero lead is present in the materials. Pipes could qualify as lead free even if they contained up to an 8% lead content. This means that while homes built after 1986 are safer, they are not necessarily free from risk of lead in the water. In addition, newer homes may be connected to a lead service line or served by a system that is experiencing problems controlling corrosion. So it’s important to know what the lead levels are in your home regardless of its age or the way you receive water – whether from a public system or your own private well.

    If you would like to dig into the details of the team’s research in Mississippi Delta, the UM Lead Project recently published its research findings in the Journal of Rural Social Sciences. Our ongoing work at the UM Lead Project is to expand testing, outreach, and mitigation in rural Mississippi communities.

    If you or your organization would like to partner with us, please send an email to In the next installment, I’ll explore the UM Lead Project’s partnership with the Mississippi Department of Health.

    This blog post is Part 3 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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