Quantifying the Costs of Contaminated Drinking Water

Contaminated drinking water conjures many immediate concerns about dangers to public health, but can those mental associations of danger be linked with measurable impacts to residents? A team of researchers examined the longstanding water contamination crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, but found a dearth of data on health effects and even on the toxicity of water. The lack of data complicates efforts by the residents of Jackson to advocate and pressure action to address dangers presented by their contaminated water.

Leveraging two available sources of data—school attendance records and public safety alerts that advised residents to boil water before use—the researchers demonstrated a link between boil water alerts and disruptions to student learning. Each time an alert was issued, unexcused absence rates in Jackson’s public schools increased between 1% and 10%.

The research team, led by Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, included DUSP’s Fábio Duarte, Arianna Salazar-Miranda, and Martina Mazzarello, with colleagues from Brown University and Boston University.

“A major challenge when advocating for policy changes is lack of data. When we combined water boiling alerts, news articles, and school attendance, we were able to shed light on the long-term social consequences of poorly maintained water infrastructure in Jackson," explained Fábio Duarte, a principal research scientist with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

The team’s analysis of this data is available in a new paper for Nature Water, “Boil water alerts and their impact on the unexcused absence rate in public schools in Jackson, Mississippi.” 

“In a city that releases hundreds of BWAs each year, our findings highlight the urgency for addressing the root causes of the poor water quality in Jackson. And it was only by working with epidemiologists, statisticians, civic groups and planners we were able to show the depth of the problem,” said Martina Mazzarello, postdoctoral fellow with the Senseable City Lab, whose design is on the cover of Nature Water.


Read the full paper

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