Correcting some misconceptions about our 9/15/2017 Press Conference: Lead Data

In the aftermath of our press conference last Friday, there have been some unfortunate and misleading statements about Flintwaterstudy, our experimental design, conclusions and funding sources. We herein set the record straight about some of these issues.

Also, for anyone interested, the lead data for all five rounds has been made publicly available. Download it here.

Claim:  Our study was funded by the State of Michigan who has a stake in getting “good” news.

As our press conference and presentation very clearly indicated, the 1st and 5th round of water lead sampling was funded by Virginia Tech and rounds 2-4 were funded by EPA.  The State of Michigan has never funded any of our water lead tests in collaboration with Flint residents. In each round of sampling we have been focused on collecting high quality data and releasing results publicly as soon as it is available. We have done so.

Claim:  The declining number of samples in each Virginia Tech sampling round, indicates that fewer residents in Flint are willing to open their homes to us.

Our study design, aims to resample homes tested in prior rounds, using the exact same protocol. In this manner we are generating a consistent dataset to determine trends in Flint water lead levels over the last two years. If a resident misses a single round of sampling, for any reason, or did not properly follow the sampling protocol, they have to be dropped from the study to accurately evaluate trends. The fact that 50% of the original participants from our first round in August 2015 have sampled in all five rounds, is actually a very impressive achievement that we are very proud of. It is a testament to the extraordinary effort of our Flint Citizen Science team, who executed all elements of sample kit distribution and collection, and personally drove sample bottles to many homes of shut-ins (or those who could not otherwise collect/return their own samples).

Claim:  The declining number of samples in each Virginia Tech sampling round introduces a bias, that makes lead look lower (or higher).

Because anyone who drops out of the study is also excluded from the analysis of the prior rounds, there is no inherent bias introduced to our trend analysis when participants drop out. For instance, consider a home that tended to test high for lead, that dropped out in round 5 despite our best efforts.  Losing that home would decrease absolute lead results in round 5, but we also exclude it from our calculations for the results we present in rounds 1-4. The final dataset still reflects sampling data for 138 homes in five sequential rounds of sampling.

While it does not affect our conclusions, based on the 90%’ile first draw lead value in August 2015, homes that dropped out did have higher lead than homes that stayed in the pool (27 ppb versus 22 ppb). But the median lead was higher for those who stayed in the pool versus those who dropped out (3.9 vs 3.2 ppb).

Claim:  The press conference made a blanket statement that Flint water is now “safe.”

This is false. We have repeatedly stated, our belief that no tap water in the U.S. can be made completely safe for all people at all times. All claims about safety must be made relative to existing federal regulations or levels of contaminants found in water of other cities.  We concluded that Flint water now has lead levels in the range of other cities with old lead pipes. We also clearly stated that this is nothing to be proud of, and remind everyone to use filters or bottled water provided by the State, to further reduce consumer exposure to water lead in Flint (and other cities with lead pipe).

Claim: Flintwaterstudy has not been sharing data or has not been transparent.

Ever since we launched our effort, we have conducted open science, and have shared all our data with every party who asks to see it in contradiction to many academic norms. In so doing we have routinely given up “credit” that would benefit our careers. We have also answered every question formally posed to us. And to show you our strong commitment to these principles, we will even honor a data request by Jordan at Young Turks, who has had an adversarial relationship with us in the recent past.

Claim: Flintwaterstudy was “disrespectful” to the residents of Flint, because we did not consult certain individuals who felt they should be consulted, before releasing the most recent citizen collected sampling data.

We have used the same open science approach to disseminate and publish our results for two years. Anyone can access our processed data.  We have also provided the raw data to anyone asking for it more than 100 times at last count. We do not feel a need to consult with anyone before releasing our data that is collected in partnership with Flint residents, back in August 2015 or now, and we would not change our approach if we conduct another sampling round. While we understand that some parties with an agenda do not like what certain data show, as was the case for the State of Michigan in August 2015 when our results showed problems, or other groups who simply do not like what the data show today, we do not accept that our actions on Friday were disrespectful to anyone. Thankfully, neutral parties can form their own opinion about our methods and approach, by viewing the entire recorded press conference here.

Claim: The press conference declared that the Flint water crisis was over

There is no accepted definition as to when a water crisis begins or when a water crisis ends. The only statement we made on that particular issue, was in response to a reporter’s direct question at the end of the press conference, to which Dr. Edwards responded:

“If you define the end of the water crisis as having water quality parameters back in the range considered normal for other cities with old lead pipes, the answer is yes,” Edwards said in response to a reporter’s question. “Obviously, there’s still a crisis of confidence amongst Flint residents that’s not going to be restored anytime soon. It’s beyond the reach of science to solve, but it can only be addressed by years of trustworthy behavior by government agencies who, unfortunately, lost that trust, deservedly, in the first place.”

We stand by our nuanced response to this reporter’s question.

Claim:  The problem is not anything you said, it is how the press conference is being reported.

We do not control what other people say about our results.  If another reporter said something that was factually in error about our work, we would address that by writing to the reporter.  We have done so on several occasions and we provide written clarifications on our website.

Claim: Some residents were wrongly excluded from the most recent sampling round.

We have worked very hard, to sample every home of those who participated in all rounds of sampling using the Virginia Tech protocol. One person who willfully deviated from the Virginia Tech protocol in the 4th round of sampling, in a manner known to give false high water lead results, was informed in April 2017 that they would not be part of future sampling rounds. While this person has purportedly claimed she was unfairly excluded in order to bias the results, our team’s written decision to exclude this resident was documented with U.S. EPA Region V back in April 2017.

Claim: Your protocol does not have at least half lead pipes in your pool, so unless I am missing something, you are not following the guidelines to calculate a correct 90%’ile lead value.

Most cities, including Flint, have poor records of service line materials. Obviously, when our team first sampled in August 2015 and were operating in crisis mode in potential conflict with authorities, we did not have this information and instead focused on responding to residents and sampling as many homes distributed across the city as we could. Because we now have information on the suspected service line material, courtesy of open science conducted by some great researchers at the University of Michigan-Flint, we can “back calculate” what a 90%’ile lead level for a LCR sampling pool with minimum 50% lead pipe, would look like in all five of our sampling rounds.  The rationale was explained during our press conference (see slide 24). Rightly or wrongly, most states allow old and imperfect records on service line material to construct an official LCR sampling pool. Verification of actual materials by plumbers is not required.  When we calculate hypothetical results for a representative high risk EPA pool with 50% lead pipe using this approach, our results are not inconsistent with the “official” results recently published by the State of Michigan. Those official results recently determined that Flint now meets the EPA action level.   We have always made clear that our work was not an official LCR sampling event, but this analysis shows that we no longer have reason to scientifically doubt the State of Michigan data. Unlike August 2015, when our results could not be reconciled with official claims of meeting the action level.

Question:  What is the distribution of samples by Ward?

This table provides the distribution by Ward.  Our conclusions are not dependent on an even distribution of samples, but there is reasonable representation across all 9 Wards.

Claim:  If the State sampling pool was constituted to examine the worst of the worst case homes, rather than just a normal legitimate sampling pool, the 90%’ile level in Flint would exceed the action level.

This is a truthful statement that we have frequently made ourselves. We remind everyone, living in Flint or in cities all over the U.S., that one cannot rely on the EPA LCR to protect you from elevated lead in water. In a given city, compliance with the LCR can still mean that 50-70% of homes, will have some water samples well over the 15 ppb action level in first, second or third draw, on some occasions.  Little pieces of lead plumbing, with very high water lead values, do detach from the plumbing on a semi-random basis. We roughly estimate that, dependent on sampling pool and site selection, “legitimate” 90%’ile lead values in Flint could still range from 2-50 ppb dependent on site selection.  That is right.  That is the maddening reality of the LCR, as we have been arguing for the last 14 years.  We need to update the EPA LCR, in order to make sampling results more consistent, rigorous and meaningful. In the meantime, we strongly advise people to continue use of bottled water or lead filters to reduce lead exposure, which can be very significant even in cities meeting the LCR.

FAQ: Dr. Marc Edwards

Acknowledgements: Mr. Siddhartha Roy, Dr. Amy Pruden, Dr. William Rhoads, Dr. Min Tang, Dr. Kelsey Pieper, Dr. Jeff Parks, Mr. Anurag Mantha

[Complete Dataset] Lead results from Tap Water Sampling in Flint, MI Rounds 1-5

In response to multiple requests, we are releasing lead-in-water testing results from all five citizen-led sampling events (Aug 2015, Mar 2016, Jul 2016, Nov 2016, and Aug 2017) for public use and dissemination.

Suggested Citation: FlintWaterStudy.org (2017) “Lead Results from Tap Water Sampling in Flint, MI during the Flint Water Crisis – Citizen Science Rounds 1-5”

Download (PDF, 103KB)

Data checks (for one or more sampling rounds): Min Tang, Kelsey Pieper, Rebekah Martin, William Rhoads, Jeffrey Parks, Anurag Mantha, Siddhartha Roy

Flint Water Study Press Conference 09.15.2017

Today is the two-year anniversary of the first press conference organized by Flint residents and activists outside Flint Town Hall where results from the 2015 citizen-led water sampling effort were first presented. We now provide updates on the 5th round of citywide lead-in-water testing led by Flint citizen scientists as well as Legionella monitoring by our team.

Speakers: Dr. Marc Edwards, Ms. Min Tang, Dr. William Rhoads and Mr. Siddhartha Roy

Download (PDF, 1.25MB)

Watch the press conference here:

NSF International Water Filter Study: Flint, Detroit, Pontiac

The NSF International is looking for volunteer homeowners and renters to help with an important kitchen faucet filter study. If you have friends or family in Flint, Pontiac or Detroit, your help in recruiting them would be greatly appreciated. Or, if you live in one of these cities, please consider participating.
Volunteers will receive $50.00 and a new water filter.
· How the study works: We will visit each selected home during the summer/fall of 2017 and may do a follow-up visit to some of the homes during the summer/fall of 2018. Water samples will be collected from homes that use faucet filters in the cities of Flint, Pontiac and Detroit. These cities were chosen because they all get their drinking water from Lake Huron and all have water infrastructure of a similar size and age.
· Why NSF is doing it: The State of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MI DEQ) has contracted NSF International (as we are an independent public health organization) to conduct a household kitchen faucet filter study to find out how well these filters perform when harmful bacteria could be present (see attached).
If you, your friends or family are interested in participating, please send an e-mail to POUfilterstudy@nsf.org or call Issac Anderson at 1-734-773-4204
Information Letter for Flint, Detroit and Pontiac Residents:
NSF Survey Page:

TYT Network Threatens FlintWaterStudy: Demands Removal of Blog Post or Face Public Battle

Also in this exclusive: INTRODUCING SCOTT SMITH OF AquaFlex HOLDINGS LLC TO FLINT

Last week we received emails from a Mr. Jordan Chariton, Political Reporter with The Young Turks network (TYT). After first threatening legal action related to our recent post highlighting improper water sampling methods by TYT and Scott Smith of Water Defense, Chariton warned he was “working on an additional piece which prove you <Dr. Edwards> are a hack.” He then threatened a “public dispute with the largest online news channel in the world” unless “the entire post is taken down and your blog issues a correction.” If we met his demands, Chariton stated “I’m willing to do nothing publicly.” (Read the emails here)

And this was our first ever TYT communication—welcome to the world of internet journalism!

Mr. Chariton further asserted that we had selectively edited the videos in our post to make him look bad. While we did take short illustrative video snippets from TYT and Mr. Smith’s online videos, we also provided web-links to the complete videos for interested readers (Example: Here is the full video of how they sample drinking water by scraping the outside of a sewer pipe!) Ironically, as part of his threats, Mr. Chariton sent us a web-link to an earlier TYT video news story, that selectively edited a phone recording of Dr. Edwards that was made without his knowledge.

Rather than removing our post, which provides unambiguous insights to problems with TYT and Water Defense sampling methods and data quality, we have instead decided to reveal new information we have uncovered about another key concern. Specifically, the inherent financial conflicts of interest associated with Mr. Smith’s efforts in Flint and elsewhere. We then highlight TYT’s efforts supporting Mr. Smith while attacking the sound scientific work of EPA, Flintwaterstudy and others.

Mr. Smith’s “Entrepreneurial” Work in Flint:  Let’s Launch a Business During a Water Crisis

The crux of our problem with Mr. Smith, is not only the improper sampling conducted as a representative of Ruffalo’s WATER DEFENSE non-profit, but that he is simultaneously an entrepreneur launching his AQUAFLEX Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) business in the midst of the Flint Water Crisis.

To review, Huffington Post discovered that Mr. Smith went into personal bankruptcy in 2012, after which time he claimed to have “left <the> corporate world to devote attention to oil spill disaster relief & developing technology for water testing & purification.” But he then rejoined the corporate world in early 2016, as illustrated through an “investor pitch” for Mr. Smith’s Aquaflex LLC that we discovered online, that laid out a business selling filters because:

Aquaflex is positioned to satisfy unmet needs for a water testing, filtration and remediation systems, as Mr. Smith and Water Defense continue to identify and diagnose water contamination sites.

The AQUAFLEX investor pitch disappeared after we exposed it, but the businesswire press announcement acknowledging Mr. Smith’s work at Water Defense and at his Aquaflex LLC business is still online.

About a month ago, Flint social media highlighted a “package deal,” that would allow Flint residents to take a bath or shower deemed “safe” by a Mr. Scott Smith of Water Defense. A paper highlighting the deal was then posted online.  For a total cost of $11,300-$13,800 per house, which included $2,100 to Scott Smith, $4,200 for a NLP™ filtration system, and $5000-$7500 for new plumbing, you too could have a safe shower and bath in Flint. The resident also claimed, that Mr. Smith had stated this water would also be “safer than […] bottled water.”

We then inquired with Water Defense, as to whether the letter read online by the resident, actually came from Water Defense.  Water Defense lawyers have now told us in writing, that the letter in question, was NOT from Water Defense. Which then raises the question:  Who is the Mr. Smith who wrote the letter extolling the virtues of the expensive NLP filters with the junk science conditioner?

Upon further investigation, we have now discovered that Mr. Smith is representing both the Ruffalo non-profit WATER DEFENSE and his Aquaflex Holdings LLC business in Flint. Below are two letterheads obtained from his correspondence with Flint residents. Note that Scott Smith Aquaflex Holding LLC and Water Defense have the exact same phone number—hence, it is not a case of two different Scott Smith’s. Rather, it is a question of when you dial that number, which Mr. Smith are you talking to? Is it the opportunistic entrepreneur/businessman or the representative of Mark Ruffalo’s non-profit? Confused? So are we. We have now asked Water Defense to clarify exactly when Mr. Smith is representing the non-profit and when he is representing Aquaflex Holdings LLC in Flint.

Both Aquaflex and Water Defense Letterheads used for correspondence with Flint residents

We believe that this revelation, legitimizes our concerns about Mr. Smith’s conflicting roles. We further note that the resident in the social media video thought they were working with “Scott Smith of Water Defense,” yet Water Defense lawyers now insist they would never endorse filters and that the letter pushing NLP filters with junk science conditioners did not come from them.  So maybe the letter, and the package deal for $11,300 per Flint house to have a bath he considers safe, is all the idea of Scott Smith of AquaFlex Holdings LLC.

TYT Network’s Unabashed and Unqualified Support for Mr. Scott Smith

Which brings us back to the bizarre mutual admiration between Mr. Smith and TYT. TYT promotes Mr. Smith while attacking EPA, Flintwaterstudy and others, as evidenced by the following stories of Mr. Chariton over the last six months.

  1. Mr. Chariton in video sampling outside of a sewer pipe: “If EPA is not going to do the testing, I will. Scott Smith with the Water Defense Council (sic) […] <who has found> bacteria that the state has not found in Flint […]… He is going to be testing [water from the sediment clean out tap of a water heater and “bacterial fungi”].” “The water heater was not tested in this home by the EPA”
  2. Mr. Smith and Mr. Chariton discussing East Chicago results: “The man with me now kinda walked me through [testing the sewer pipe and water heater]. Scott Smith. You are a scientist. You have done really terrific work […] You have creatively set the example on home water heating testing” “[Scott Smith] went in and tested 30 homes in Flint and you found all sorts of things that they didn’t find simply because you looked.”
  3. TYT praising Mr. Smith in follow-up discussion: “Scott Smith of Water Defense was our liaison for that testing” “Scott is trusted by a lot of people” “It is shameful that we have to do the testing before EPA does”
  4. Mr. Chariton at TYT Flint Townhall: “There are EPA funded scientists. And I am talking to you Marc Edwards. […] He was granted hundreds of thousands of dollars from [EPA and State of Michigan]. ” “I have worked with an independent water expert who’s not getting any money from the EPA. His name is Scott Smith. I am not getting paid from Scott, so this is just a free plug.”

Interestingly, while TYT has spent all kinds of air time questioning possible financial conflicts of real scientists working on normal research grants through their University and the ethics of EPA employees (and others) during the Flint disaster response, they have never once mentioned Mr. Smith’s venture capital AQUAFLEX Holdings LLC business venture. Nor have they commented on the quotation of $2,100 for Mr. Smith, as part of a $11,300-$13,800 package deal, to allow Flint residents to enjoy a Scott Smith approved safe shower. Oddly, TYT has never previously mentioned that Mr. Smith is also a businessman, self-identified entrepreneur, whose private company supposedly “Brings Clarity to Water Crisis.” No.  Only his role at non-profit WATER DEFENSE has ever been discussed. This seems biased and one sided at best. Mr. Chariton is indeed a TYT political reporter and not a science reporter.

Both Mr. Smith and TYT also seem to revel in the fact, that conventional media no longer covers Water Defense or Aquaflex Holdings LLC work in Flint and elsewhere:

Our Response to TYT

We did not publicly respond for four months, while TYT shamelessly promoted Mr. Smith of AquaFlex LLC Holdings (or is it Water Defense?) at the expense of the EPA, Flintwaterstudy scientists and others. Because those attacks only hurt us, and not the public.

However, once we determined that Mr. Smith was telling Flint residents, that the only way he could recommend a safe bathing experience in Flint, is after spending $11,300 per house, that crossed a line for us. His inexperience and bad science was then potentially hurting Flint residents, who have already been hurt enough. Ultimately, it is up to our readers, and the attorney general, to decide whether the $11,300 per Flint home was ethical or represents a good value. You can also decide whether TYT’s fawning coverage of Mr. Smith (and threats against us) represents good journalism.

In closing, we would rather suffer the wrath of ”a public dispute with the largest online news channel in the world,” than sit by silently while bad science was used to hurt people. We called out EPA and the State of Michigan when they were the bad actors, and we will also call out TYT, a non-profit, and an opportunistic entrepreneur when they are in the wrong.  So Mr. Chariton, we will not remove our posting — but we do provide your emails below to our readers, so your concerns and threats are faithfully represented.

 Mr. Chariton’s threatening emails to FlintWaterStudy

Download (PDF, 342KB)

Primary Authors: Dr. Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy