When Ashley Ellis first came to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as an undergraduate student in the Honors Program in 2017, she planned to major in business.
Little did she know that she would gravitate toward the business of water quality.
“I first got interested in learning water systems when I took a tropical ecology and geology class,” said Ellis, now in her first semester in the UTC Master of Public Health program.
The course was taught by Dr. Dawn Ford, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance.
“We learned about island ecology and water health for the sake of reef ecosystems,” Ellis recalled, “and it piqued my interest. I switched my major to environmental science after Dr. Ford’s class.”
Ellis quickly immersed herself in topics like oceanography and limnology that dealt with the quality and processes of water systems.
“My family is from Hawaii and the Philippines,” she said, “so I’ve always been around the ocean and have always been interested in it.”
During her formative years, her family moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, and “living in Tennessee and living inland made me interested in that connection between freshwater systems and how that eventually reaches oceans.”
After receiving her undergraduate degree in December 2021, Ellis spent the spring 2022 semester as a teaching assistant for Ford before starting in the MPH program in August.
“When I heard she was doing water lead quality testing,” Ellis said, “I was really interested in being a part of it.”
National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which runs from October 23–29, is a period when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasize the numerous ways that children’s exposure to lead in their surroundings can be decreased and its serious health impacts prevented.
Earlier this year, Ford landed a grant from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) for “Lead Testing in Drinking Water Project Services to Licensed Childcare Centers.”
“Lead poisoning can cause neurological problems, delayed development and impacts on IQ,” Ford explained. “It affects young kids—those under the age of six—the most. That’s why we’re targeting childcare centers.”
The overall objective of the grant is for UTC MPH students to work with Tennessee Department of Human Services-licensed childcare facilities in Hamilton, Bradley and Marion counties to test their drinking water for lead to:
- provide education about this free service and the importance of lead testing to state-licensed childcare centers;
- increase participation among the childcare centers so that lead concentration levels at point-of-use drinking water outlets can be determined;
- and assist those providers needing to take corrective action with technical assistance and referrals for funding to complete the required remediation.
According to Ford, who was recently named president-elect of the Tennessee Public Health Association, Tennessee childcare institutions are not required to test their drinking water for lead poisoning.
She believes that it will be a state necessity within a few years, “but I don’t know that free testing will be available then, so that’s why this is a good opportunity for the childcare centers to get free testing now,” she said.
“There are a lot of childcare centers in Hamilton County and the surrounding counties in low-income areas that may not have the resources to do the testing without this program being available.”
The lead testing is part of an overarching initiative called the Tennessee College/Underserved Community Partnership Program—or TN CUPP—which works to establish partnerships between underserved communities and higher education institutions in Tennessee. According to the TN CUPP website, these partnerships provide a variety of low to no-cost technical support and manpower to address environmental, economic and health issues that impact the quality of life in nearby underserved communities.
This project is also affiliated with the Environmental Protection Agency’s CUPP program. The University will be signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the EPA on Nov. 3 on UTC’s campus, opening opportunities for additional projects.
Ford said that reducing lead exposure is an initiative of the federal and state governments.
“We’re really excited about this because oftentimes projects just involve identifying problems, but with this project, we’re able to help people fix the problems that they have and make it a safer environment,” she said. “That’s why we’re hoping we’ll get a lot of participation as we get the word out.”
Ford said the one-year TDEC grant, which started on July 1, provides money to pay students hourly and reimburses them for mileage to the childcare centers to do the testing.
Multiple UTC MPH students will be involved during the grant period, but the student leading the charge is Ellis.
Approximately 10 to 14 hours a week this fall, Ellis can be found on the phone or her computer, contacting the nearly 190 childcare facilities in the three counties.
“We have a list of the daycare centers in Marion County, Bradley County and Hamilton County; right now, I’m just working on Hamilton County because that’s the longest list,” she said. “I start by asking if they’re interested in water testing and explaining the importance of it for early childhood health.”
Ellis explains the process to the center workers. Samples must be taken from each source of water inside the building used as drinking water or to prepare foods—such as water fountains, kitchen sinks and bathroom sinks.
“We count the number of water sources,” she said, “and then I order the test kits.”
She also offers to come out to do the testing, although many centers elect to do it themselves. Once each water source is tested, those tests are mailed off to the state lab.
“The lab will then send us back the results,” Ford explained, “and if any are elevated, we’ll contact the center and tell them. We then need to take a second sample and send it off to the lab again.
“If it’s confirmed that it’s elevated, we’ll help them apply for money from the state to remediate, which is probably replacing a faucet; it’s usually the fixture itself that’s the source of the lead.”
Ford recalled that Ellis was apprehensive when she first started contacting the childcare centers.
“It just took repetition and practice to get better about communication,” she explained. “I think it’s a really good point to make. Students might be intimidated by projects like these, but as you get more practice, you get better at it.”
“Yeah, that also goes into how it’s useful to me as an MPH student because I get scared calling people,” Ellis said with a laugh. “The first few centers I called, I felt like this scared college kid that they weren’t going to want in their center, but this is teaching me how to be professional and confident. When I call these places now, I truly feel like I’m someone who can make a difference.”
Reaching out to childcare centers to talk about lead poisoning prevention and awareness brings the business of water quality full circle.
“I think it’s interesting how we have to worry about water quality,” Ellis said. “Calling the centers myself and mimicking what an actual public health worker might do has forced me to venture out of my comfort zone. You know, just calling them, telling them about the testing, offering to do the testing myself, promoting early childhood health, possibly mitigating elevated lead levels.
“It’s just interesting to be on the inside of that, to see it happen and be a part of it.”