When her firstborn exhibited extreme sensitivity to smell, sound and touch, along with some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Sarah Howard wondered if it was her fault, if she’d done something to harm her baby boy during her pregnancy. She just didn’t know.
She and her husband, Andrew, had only recently moved to Jackson in 2006, and he was their first child, the 40-year-old mother of two told CNN.
As he got older, he wouldn’t use public restrooms. The noise of the flushing was overbearing, so he’d just hold it until he couldn’t. He wanted his bathtub filled to a specific level before he’d get in. He demanded pancakes cut a certain way, and his parents kept extra syrup on hand because he always wanted the bottle full. When Jackson’s muggy heat gave way to fleeting winter, the boy struggled wearing pants instead of shorts.
It didn’t compute. Sarah Howard felt she’d done everything right during her pregnancy, she thought, even giving up her beloved coffee.
“I used to wonder if I did something wrong. Did I take the wrong vitamin or something?” she said.
Today, she and Andrew suspect another culprit: Lead in their hometown’s water. It’s a suspicion shared by parents of about 2,000 kids – and quite likely, many more – now suing the city and state. Compounding matters in the capital city of roughly 150,000, residents are accustomed to boiling water, so they can bathe or cook with it, but with lead, boiling water increases the concentration of the known neurotoxin and probable carcinogen.
Several concerned mothers and fathers shared with CNN stories of their youngsters suffering from an array of ailments, and there was remarkable overlap in the symptoms and conditions: forgetfulness, lack of focus, hyperactivity, learning and behavioral disorders, sensory issues and skin problems. Lead exposure, the parents are learning, could cause all of these.
But they just don’t know.
Corey Stern is leading a team of lawyers – some local, some from his New York-based firm, which specializes in lead poisoning and recently secured a settlement of more than $600 million for children in Flint, Michigan – seeking accountability for Jackson families.
The legal team met with hundreds of parents this month at The Mississippi Children’s Museum. As their children practiced puppetry, raced boats on a miniature river, clambered about a jungle gym and spelled words on a Scrabble board the size of a living room, parents quizzed the attorneys about Jackson’s water crisis and the legal remedies to which they might be entitled.
Stern explained the tricky nature of lead poisoning. While the state has blood lead levels at which it takes action, experts concur there is no safe exposure level for humans and children are susceptible to brain damage, especially without medical intervention.
“It’s not the kind of brain damage where if you walk down the street and you saw them, you’d say to yourself, ‘That kid is really damaged.’ It’s the kind of brain damage that you can’t see, you can’t touch,” the attorney said. “But it’s real. It’s there, and it happens to children because their brains are still being formed, unlike us.”
Youngsters exposed to lead struggle to learn and stay in school, experts say. They’re at higher risk of being held back a grade, and they are less likely to graduate from high school and college.
“It doesn’t mean they won’t, but the deck is stacked against them once the lead gets into their body,” Stern said, “because it gets into their brain and it’s irreversible.”
At the museum, according to the legal team, parents of about 125 children sought to add their names to the lengthy roll of plaintiffs filing lawsuits alleging, among other things, city and state leaders knew of rising lead levels in Jackson’s drinking water sources for about two years before warning residents in January 2016. Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of almost half of the clients, roughly 2,000 and counting, and the rest are in the process, the legal team says.
The lawyers still await blood tests, and in some cases bone scans, from most of their child plaintiffs to determine if they’ve been poisoned.
In the meantime, Jackson parents just don’t know.
The city has long had issues with its drinking water, even prior to 2012 when it entered into a consent decree with the state and US Environmental Protection Agency that alleged the city had violated the federal Clean Water Act and Mississippi Air and Water Pollution Control Law by allowing unauthorized sewage overflows.
Lead exposure, of course, can come from sources other than water – paint, toys and soil, among them – but the lawsuit originally filed last year alleges lead has been a persistent hazard for anyone consuming city water and cites testing indicating worrisome levels of lead in Jackson’s water sources going back to late 2009, before many of the plaintiffs were born.
The city and state Department of Health have claimed the lawsuits – which also allege officials neglected to repair the water system – are without merit. The Health Department, which has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, declined to comment. Jackson’s city attorney referred CNN to court filings in which the city denied the substantive allegations.
Water problems are the stuff of everyday life in Jackson. Longtime residents trace it back to the 1960s, when desegregation spurred White flight, draining the city’s tax base and leaving its infrastructure a mess. The city began shifting a half-century ago – from 60% White to 56% African American in 1990 to 83% Black today. One in four Jacksonians lives in poverty.
State and local officials see it similarly. State Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr., who lives in Jackson, has called it a problem which “has been decades in the making,” while Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has blamed “deferred maintenance (of the city water system) over three decades or more,” and has been quite vocal that he believes the city’s racial composition is behind the divestment and underinvestment residents have witnessed. He declared a local emergency in August.
Last week, four residents filed a proposed class-action lawsuit, separate from those that Jackson parents are pursuing, that targeted city officials past and present, including Lumumba. It alleges that long before last month’s flooding – which left the city without reliable running water for days – “Jackson’s water supply was not fit for human consumption due to the high levels of lead and other contaminants, in violation of Plaintiffs’ right to bodily integrity protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Water woes just part of life
Before the floods came in August, water warnings had become like white noise, residents say. A T-shirt for sale in the capital’s artsy Fondren District read, “Welcome to Boil Water Alert, Mississippi.”
Yet even after the state Health Department tweeted last week Jackson’s water was “safe to drink” following 48 days under a boil-water advisory, Dr. Anita Henderson, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ chapter in Mississippi, tweeted an hour later an all-caps admonition: “PARENTS PLEASE NOTE,” warning pregnant women and children younger than 6 should still use filtered or bottled water for drinking and cooking.
A Mississippi Department of Health program focuses on testing the same age group, given the heightened risks they face from lead poisoning, but the scope of the problem in those youngsters is unclear.
The state received test results for fewer than one in five children under 6 from 2010 to 2015, determining fewer than 1% had elevated blood lead levels, defined as more than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The federal definition pegs it at 3.5 micrograms, and experts warn levels below 5 micrograms can still cause health issues.
Also, a 2019 report published in the Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association reported different data, saying results including another type of blood collection showed between 4.5% and 7.1% of Mississippi children younger than 6 had elevated blood lead levels.
So, parents across Mississippi just don’t know.
Kitty Blanks, a 42-year-old mother of four, stopped using the water for cooking years ago, but she still uses it for baths. It might be why her oldest daughter, 17, keeps breaking out. Lead in the water might also explain why her 12-year-old son was held back a grade, requiring home-schooling.
But she just doesn’t know.
“We’re still using it,” she said, walking through the museum parking lot. “Me and my kids are living through it.”
Lifelong resident Angel Allen, 24, always thought her tap water tasted bitter, “like something’s in it,” she said. After learning about the problems with lead, she wonders if it might explain why her son and daughter “can’t stay still for too long,” she said.
As children squealed and giggled in the museum’s jungle gym, her aunt, Jessica Allen, 34, added, “We’ve been exposed to the water over numerous years. Who knows how long it’s been like that?”
They just don’t know.
The same goes for Madonna Burkes, 38. Her family has dealt with spells of brown, rusty-looking water coming from the pipes for more than a decade, she said. Her 12-year-old daughter suffers from a rare skin disorder, she said, and the medicine she’s prescribed can cause liver damage.
“I don’t feel safe taking a bath, drinking water, playing in the water,” the youngster told CNN.
The night before the museum meeting, Rylo, the family’s 5-year-old pit bull terrier, died after a bout with illness. He was healthy and had all his shots, Burkes’ fiancé, Marlon Blackmon, said, but Rylo loved to play in water and drank tap water his whole life. Last year, Rylo’s mother died of an unexplained cyst, he said.
“How do we know it don’t come from the water?” Burkes asked of the problems in her household.
They just don’t know.
Jamil Woodruff, 34, went to the museum in hopes it might explain issues with three of her five children. Her oldest child, 11, has memory problems and struggles to focus. She was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Her 5-year-old twins are developmentally behind and require special education.
Woodruff, who has lived in Jackson since she was 15, has a scalp condition which seems to worsen when she bathes at home, so she drives 20 minutes to her mother’s house in Pearl to shower, she said.
Like many of the hundreds of parents in attendance, she only recently learned of the history of lead in Jackson’s water. She hopes blood tests on her and her children might yield some answers.
But as of now, she just doesn’t know.
Residents blame a parade of city and state politicians who they say never cared enough to address the situation. They’d rather squabble across party lines than help the people of Jackson, in many residents’ eyes.
It is not lost on them how international headlines about their long-problematic water seem to coincide with reports former state officials allegedly siphoned millions in funding earmarked for the state’s neediest, some of which they’re accused of directing to wealthy residents, including ex-NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Favre, who has not been charged in the case, has denied wrongdoing.
Charles Wilson III, who worries his young son and adult daughter might have suffered from lead poisoning, said city and state leaders have for years made excuses for not helping Jackson. He asked: Will they “kick the can down the road again” once Favre vanishes from the nightly newscasts?
“You want to give millions to a football player … but you’re not taking care of the kids,” Wilson said. “Our kids are suffering. It’s an embarrassment for the capital city.”
Inequity compounds problems
Andrew and Sarah Howard eventually placed their son in therapy after he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder at age 4. Later, they learned he also has attention deficit disorder. It was easier to make a connection when their second child began showing some of the same tendencies, particularly with noises and smells.
They’ve stopped blaming themselves. They still feel overwhelmed at times. Their daughter recently became upset, covering her ears in the car when a Weeknd song came through the speakers.
“I just got the worst feeling inside my head,” the 10-year-old said. “The sound of the bass was making my eardrums rumble.”
The Howards have techniques and coping mechanisms – noise-canceling headphones for restaurants, for instance – to help their son, now 15, and daughter through their days.
Andrew Howard knows his north Jackson family is privileged. He works at Traxler’s School of Hair in less-affluent south Jackson, which educates about 50 low-income students, some of whom struggle to find clean water. One student recently broke into tears when an administrator gave him a case of bottles to take home to his family, Andrew Howard recalled.
“It’s so uneven,” Sarah said.
Where he has spent years researching his children’s conditions and the state of the water in his hometown, Andrew wonders how many people – in a city where the average annual income per person is around $23,000 – have the wherewithal let alone the time and resources to scrutinize such matters, he said.
“That’s infuriating,” he said. “What about the people who don’t know to ask these questions?”
Friends and family have long asked the Howards why they stay in Jackson, and the answer is simple: They love it here. This latest crisis marks the first time in 16 years the couple has questioned their convictions, Sarah Howard said.
The same goes for many in Jackson. There’s still so much they just don’t know.
Stern, the attorney, hears a lot from less-than-proud Jacksonians, residents who are ashamed to be likened to Flint and far-flung developing countries, people who don’t have an answer when friends and family outside Jackson ask why they didn’t speak up sooner.
“People here feel like the country is watching them for the first time ever, and they haven’t advocated for themselves in such a meaningful way over the last few years partially because they didn’t know what was happening in their pipes,” he said.
Jackson, like Flint and other cities where his firm has taken on cases involving lead in the water, has a chance to send a message to cities across the nation, Stern said.
“When other leaders in this country see what’s happening in Jackson, and that people are standing up and saying, ‘Not here, not now. This isn’t right,’ on the heels of Flint and Newark (New Jersey) and Benton Harbor, Michigan, and all of the other places where this is happening – even though it’s baby steps each time, the more attention it gets, the more coverage it gets and the more successful it is, the less likely it’ll happen again to other people,” he said.
It’s past time, the attorney said, that people know.