Water Access Has Returned to Jackson, But a Long-Term Health Crisis Remains

Jackson, Mississippi — In mid-September, Howard Sanders bumped down pothole-ridden streets in a white Cadillac weighed down with water bottles on his way to a home in Ward 3, a neglected neighborhood that he called “a war zone.”

Johnnie Jones greeted Sanders, the director of marketing outreach and marketing for Central Mississippi Health Services. Since Jones’ hip surgery about a month ago, the 74-year-old had used a walker to get around and hadn’t been able to get to any of the city’s water distribution sites.

Jackson’s routine water woes became so dire in late August that President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency: Flooding and water treatment facility problems had shut down the majority-Black city’s water supply. Although water pressure was restored and the city is now a boil-water advisory was lifted in mid-September, the problems aren’t over.

Bottled water remains a way to live. The city’s roughly 150,000 residents must stay alert — making sure they don’t rinse their toothbrushes with tap water, keeping their mouths closed while they shower, rethinking cooking plans, or budgeting for gas so they can drive around looking for water. Many residents buy bottled water to pay their water bills. This means they have less money for other expenses. For Jackson’s poorest and oldest residents, who can’t leave their homes or lift water cases, avoiding dubious water becomes just that much harder.

“We are shellshocked, we’re traumatized,” Sanders said.

Jackson’s water woes are a manifestation of a deeper health crisis in Mississippi, whose residents have pervasive chronic diseases. It is the state with the most chronic diseases. the lowest life expectancyThe highest rate of infant mortality.

“The water is a window into that neglect that many people have experienced for much of their lives,” said Richard Mizelle Jr., a historian of medicine at The University of Houston. “Using bottled water for the rest of your life is not sustainable.”

But in Jackson an alternative doesn’t exist, said Dr. Robert Smith. As a result of his civil rights work, he founded Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963. The organization currently operates four clinics free of charge in the Jackson area. He often sees patients with multiple conditions, such diabetes, hypertension or heart problems. Smith said that unsafe water can cause death in patients who have their dialysis at home, those with immunocompromised or babies who are formula-fed.

Residents filed a lawsuit this month against the city and private engineering firms responsible for the city’s water system, claiming they had experienced a host of health problems — dehydration, malnutrition, lead poisoning, E. coli exposure, hair loss, skin rashes, and digestive issues — as a result of contaminated water. The lawsuit alleges that Jackson’s water has elevated lead levels, a finding confirmed by the Mississippi State Department of Health.

While Jackson’s current water situation is extremeMany communities of color, low income communities, and those with large numbers of non-native English speakers have unsafe water. Erik OlsonSenior strategic director for health & food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. These communities are more likely to be subject to Safe Drinking Water Act violations. a study by the nonprofit advocacy group. Olson stated that it takes longer for these communities to get back in compliance with the law.

The federal infrastructure bill, which was passed last year, includes $50 billion to improve the country’s drinking water and wastewater systems. Mississippi will receive $429 million over five years. Jackson must wait — and fight — for its share.

Communities often live for years with chronic illness and trauma. Five years after the start of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, about 20% of the city’s adult residents had clinical depression, and nearly a quarter had post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent paper published in JAMA.

Jones, like many locals, hasn’t trusted Jackson’s water in decades. That distrust — and the constant vigilance, extra expenses, and hassle — add a layer of psychological strain.

“It is very stressful,” Jones said.

For the city’s poorest communities, the water crisis sits on top of existing stressors, including crime and unstable housing, said Dr. Obie McNair, chief operating officer of Central Mississippi Health Services. “It’s additive.”

Mauda Monger is chief operating officer at the company. She said that over time, this effort and adjustment can take a toll. My Brother’s KeeperThe Jackson Community Health Equity Nonprofit is a community-based health equity organization. Chronic stress and inability to access healthcare can lead to chronic illnesses and preterm births. All of these are common in Jackson. “Bad health outcomes don’t happen in a short period of time,” she said.

For Jackson’s health clinics, the water crisis has reshaped their role. To prevent health complications that can come from drinking or bathing in dirty water, they have been supplying the city’s most needy with clean water.

“We want to be a part of the solution,” McNair said.

Community health centers in the state have a long history of filling gaps in services for Mississippi’s poorest residents, said Terrence ShirleyThe CEO of the Community Health Center Association of Mississippi. “Back in the day, there were times when community health centers would actually go out and dig wells for their patients.”

Since February 2021, Central Mississippi Health Services has been giving water to residents approximately twice a month. This was after a winter storm left Jackson without water several weeks.

But in August, things got so bad again that Sanders implored listeners of a local radio show to call the center if they couldn’t get water. Many Jackson residents can’t make it to the city’s distribution sites because of work schedules, lack of transportation, or a physical impairment.

“Now, all of a sudden, I am the water man,” Sanders said.

Thelma Kinney Cornelius, 72, first heard about Sanders’ water deliveries from his radio appearances. She hasn’t been able to drive since her treatment for intestinal cancer in 2021. She isn’t able to cook these days. She made an exception for a Sunday and used a case of bottled water to make a pot full of rice and peas.

“It’s a lot of adjustment trying to get into that routine,” said Cornelius. “It’s hard.”

The day that Jackson’s boil-water advisory was lifted, Sanders was diagnosed with a hernia, probably from lifting heavy water cases, he said. Still, the following day, Sanders drove around the Virden Addition neighborhood with other volunteers, knocking on people’s doors and asking whether they needed water.

He said he has no plans to stop water deliveries as Jackson residents continue to deal with the long-term fallout from the summer’s crisis. Residents are still concerned about lead and other harmful contaminants lurking within the water.

“It’s like a little Third World country over here,” Sanders said. “In all honesty, we will probably be on this for the next year.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News)This national newsroom produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling KHN This is one of three major operating programs. KFF(Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.

KHN (Kaiser Health News)This national newsroom produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling KHNThis is one of three major operating programs. KFF(Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.

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