Water contamination hurts school attendance

When community drinking water sources become compromised, students are less likely to show up for school. 

An April study conducted in Jackson, Mississippi, and published in Nature Water found that each time a boil-water advisory was issued by local health officials, unexcused school absence rates increased by as much as 10%.

Because of an aging water system, water breaks are common in Jackson, where about 83% of the population is Black and almost 25% live in poverty. In 2020 alone, about 500 boil-water advisories were issued because of contaminated drinking water. Students in the Jackson Public School District lost as many as 9.5 million school days that year from related absences, researchers estimated.

Not all students stayed home following the advisories, however. In schools where a high proportion of students received free and reduced meals, attendance rates improved. With water contamination affecting meals at home, researchers suggested that parents in low-income families may have opted to send their children to school to eat.

Besides water breaks, flooding damaged the Jackson’s water treatment plant last fall, cutting off 150,000 residents from safe drinking water.

Incarcerated people with chronic health conditions undertreated 

People who are incarcerated are much less likely to be treated for chronic conditions than the general U.S. population. 

Published April 14 in JAMA Health Forum, a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that people in prisons and jails with conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, asthma, HIV and mental illness may not receive the medications they need, potentially putting their lives at risk. 

Because comprehensive data on prescription drug use are not available for all people who are incarcerated, the researchers compared national health survey data on chronic conditions among recently incarcerated people with a commercial prescription database. They concluded there are high rates of undertreatment at correctional facilities. For example, they estimated that incarcerated people with asthma accounted for 0.85% of the U.S. population with the disease, but just 0.15% of those who received asthma medication.

Previous research has found that health care for the 2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. — who are disproportionately people of color — is often understaffed and underfunded, the study noted.

Community group sues EPA to stop fuel production

Residents of a small Mississippi city are fighting a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruling that would allow new hazardous chemicals to be processed near their community.

Cherokee Concerned Citizens, a nonprofit group in Pascagoula, Mississippi, sued the EPA April 7 in response to the agency’s August decision to allow a nearby Chevron refinery to create fuel from plastic waste. The city of 24,000 residents on the Gulf Coast is only a mile from the Chevron plant, which already threatens residents with other potentially hazardous emissions. 

According to the plaintiffs, the EPA’s own assessment found the new chemical substance — exact components of which have not been disclosed — could pose as much as a 1 in 4 cancer risk for nearby residents. The lawsuit, which was filed in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by Earthjustice, alleges the EPA violated the Toxic Substances Control Act by not limiting potential dangers and not carrying out lab testing.

‘Flash droughts’ becoming norm with climate change

Sudden, rapidly developing droughts are becoming more common as the world warms from human-caused climate change.

While the world has long experienced droughts that come on slowly, global warming has led to more frequent “flash droughts,” over the past six decades, according to an April 13 study in Science

Europe, the Sahara, east and north Asia, and South America’s west coast have been most affected by flash droughts, which become severe in just a few weeks and last for months. Even in parts of the world that have experienced fewer flash droughts — including North America, Southeast Asia and northern Australia — the onset speed of droughts increased.

The growing frequency of flash droughts, which damage ecosystems and contribute to wildfires, will make it harder for people to adapt to climate change. As flash droughts are more difficult for scientists to predict, the international team of researchers called for greater attention to new forecasting approaches.

EPA hearings on power plant wastewater proposal scheduled

Members of the public are weighing in this week on a proposed EPA rule that would more tightly limit toxic wastewater discharged by hundreds of U.S. power plants.

Announced March 7, the EPA proposal would strengthen restrictions on three specific kinds of wastewater released by coal-fired power plants: flue gas desulfurization wastewater, bottom ash transport water and combustion residual leachate. 

Today and on April 25, the EPA is hosting online hearings on the proposed rule, which is predicted to decrease the amount of discharged wastewater pollutants by 584 million pounds a year. Common pollutants discharged via wastewater by coal-fired power plants include selenium, mercury, arsenic and nickel, which can contaminate drinking water sources.

Feedback on the proposal is also being accepted online through May 30.  As of today, almost 3,000 comments had been received, including input from energy companies, environmental health nonprofits and municipal agencies.

Regulating air pollution benefits most vulnerable

While all Americans could breathe better with lower levels of air pollution, some at-risk people would benefit even more. 

A study published in the April 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that lowering fine particulate air pollutants, also known as PM2.5, would especially pay off for the health of Black and low-income Americans. 

If the EPA’s current standard for annual average PM2.5 levels were lowered from 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to eight micrograms, the death rate for high-income white adults would fall by 4%. But for Black high-income adults, it would fall by 7%. And for both white and Black low-income adults, the death rate would fall by 6%, according to the study, led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previous research has shown that low-income people and communities of color are at highest risk for exposure to air pollutants.

In January, the EPA proposed lowering its annual average air quality standard to between nine and 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, though a limit of 8 micrograms was also under consideration.