Boil Water Alerts Linked to Increase in School Absences
Since the massive water crisis in Jackson, Miss., last year, a new study has found that each time the city issues a boil water alert, unexcused absence rates increase by up to 10 percent, underscoring the need to address the root causes of poor water quality.
Following the massive water contamination crisis in Jackson, Miss., that made international headlines last year, a new analysis coauthored by a School of Public Health researcher has found that boil water alerts significantly disrupted student learning.
Published in the journal Nature Water, the study compared boil water alerts and unexcused absence rates in Jackson’s public schools and found that each time an alert was issued, unexcused absence rates in Jackson’s public schools increased up to 10 percent.
Nationally, an estimated 81 to 217 million people are affected by community water systems that are deemed to have violations. Contaminated drinking water may cause numerous health and development problems in adults and children, including skin, urinary–bladder, and lung cancers, gastroenteritis, and intellectual impairment and cognitivedecline in children. Low-income, non-White communities are much more likely to be exposed to unclean water. Among Jackson’s 150,000 residents, more than 80 percent are Black and 25 percent live in poverty.
The new findings reflect the wide-ranging adverseeffects of water contamination on children’s health.
“The correlation between boil water notices and school absences that we found shows that the effects of polluted water can reach far beyond direct gastrointestinal illness from drinking the unsafe water,” says Koen Tieskens, research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health. “School absenteeism is associated with increased likelihood of poverty and lower physical and mental health later in life.”
For the study, which was led by Brown University, Tieskens and colleagues utilized data on boil water alerts, daily public school attendance in Jackson, demographics, and community-level vulnerabilities.
The researchers also found decreases in unexcused absences in schools where much of the student body receives free and reduced lunches. Water contamination likely disrupts at-home meal preparation at home, which means these families may rely on schools to provide lunch or other meals to students.
The findings highlight the urgency for addressing the root causes of the poor water quality in Jackson, which releases hundreds of BWAs each year—and where spatial data is scarce, Tieskens notes.
“We had to build a lot of datasets from scratch, such as the number of boil water notices per household or ward, and a water specific vulnerability index,” he says. “By making these datasets publicly available and targeted dissemination, we hope that they will contribute beyond the scope of this paper in both policy making and academic research.”