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Water quality in Mississippi: Is the water safe to drink?
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- From the drought in California to lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, water is on the minds of many Americans, Mississippians included.
In workplaces and homes across the Magnolia State, one question floats to the top: How do we know if our water is safe?
Jason Barrett, an assistant Extension professor in the Mississippi State University Extension Center for Government and Community Development, said water system operators and the Environmental Protection Agency have regulations and guidelines in place for testing and reporting test results.
“It’s reasonable to expect water to pick up trace amounts of contaminants as it moves through rivers, streams, creeks and reservoirs, but the presence of contaminants does not necessarily mean the water poses a health risk,” Barrett said. “Public water systems are tested for contaminants, such as lead, which can’t be seen, tasted or smelled, as well as other bacteria, chemicals and microorganisms.”
Learn more about EPA requirements for water testing.
Barrett said approximately 1,200 separate public water systems serve Mississippi’s 82 counties. A board of directors manages each system and is required under the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act to employ a certified water operator to maintain and monitor the system.
Water quality test results are compiled in an annual consumer confidence report, which is sent to customers in their bills and published in local newspapers. In some cases, the report also is available online.
“Consumer confidence reports are required to be published by July 1 for the previous calendar year,” Barrett said. “Consumers can see what the maximum contaminant levels are, what the test results were, how often the water was sampled and if there was a violation.”
One of the most common ways lead gets into drinking water is from old pipes, plumbing fixtures and lead solder on copper pipes. Houses built before 1986, when the lead ban was issued, are more prone to lead leaching into the water, Barrett said.
Barrett lives in a house built in 1935, so in addition to being a water quality expert professionally, he is familiar with the recommended solution personally.
“Every morning, I allow the water faucet to run for a couple minutes to flush out any water that has been sitting in the pipes all night,” Barrett said.
This water can be saved in containers and used to water plants.
“We don’t cook with hot water directly from the pipes. Another option for people who are concerned is to use an approved water filtration device or system,” he said.
Learn more about the reduction claims of various filtration systems.
Melissa Parker, deputy director for the Office of Environmental Health with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), said some common misunderstandings about water cause confusion.
“Whether you use surface water or ground water does not determine the amount of lead leaching; it’s a matter of the corrosivity of the water,” Parker said. “People also think lead is coming from the treated water, but we test the water and treat it, so it’s fine. It’s what happens once that water reaches different homes that lead becomes a problem.”
Jim Craig, MSDH director of health protection, said many people in Mississippi are concerned and even afraid because so many water-related issues are not commonly understood.
The EPA has established an “action level” for lead and copper that requires certain actions from public water systems and recommends certain actions for homeowners.
“The EPA action level is not a level of health risk,” Craig said. “The action level lets everyone know the condition of the water is such that its pH or alkalinity could react with home plumbing, cause corrosion and potentially leach lead.”
Craig said his department issues warnings for at-risk populations when lead levels could cause developmental problems in children 5 years and younger, including unborn children. In those cases, they recommend pregnant women and young children drink only bottled or properly filtered water.
“The primary standards set by the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act are designed to protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water. Following the provided recommendations keeps you and your family safe,” he said.
For more information, visit Healthy MS.