Hazardous Waste-levels of Lead found in a Flint household’s water

LeeAnne Walters had children with health problems that she was concerned might be linked to the poor water in her home. The water in her home was very brown, even after it was passed through a filtered designed to remove particles. The City of Flint tested her water in February 2015 and found 104 parts per billion (ppb), and tested it again in March 2015 and found 397 ppb lead. At this point, the city had them running the water for 20-25 min before showering, washing dishes or doing laundry.

Even more worrisome is that these high lead levels came after using sampling techniques that tend to make lead levels lower in samples that the city collects. These include use of bottles with very tiny opening and preflushing. Pre-flushing is the act of flushing cold water for 3-4 minutes, prior to beginning the required stagnation period of 6+ hours, after which water samples are taken for lead testing. Pre-flushing essentially “pre-cleans” the lead from the plumbing, and also virtually eliminates the likelihood of detecting lead in water that can come from lead pipe. Likewise, use of bottles with tiny openings, forces consumers to collect water at a very low flow rate, which tends to reduce the amount of lead in water compared to normal use.

Figure 1: LeeAnne Walters shows samples taken from her home on January 21 and January 15 this year to Flint’s emergency manager Jerry Ambrose during a January 21 forum (Image courtesy: The Daily Mail/AP)

Virginia Tech collaborated with Ms. Walters’ on a follow-up sampling event. In this case we used bottles that allowed consumers to use water at a normal flow rate. We also collected 30 bottles from her home at low, medium and high flow rates. The drinking water samples all had extremely high lead levels between 200 ppb to 13,200 ppb (Figure 2). Water containing more than 5,000 ppb of lead, exceeds criteria that classifies water as a hazardous waste. The US EPA action level for lead is 15 ppb and the World Health Organization (WHO) maximum lead level is 10 ppb. Thus, the lead levels in Ms.Walters’ water were very alarming by any standard.. It is also important to point out that there is NO safe level for lead in water.

Results for lead in sequential sampling (1L water samples taken consecutively) at low, medium and high flows -- Results range from 200 to 13,200 ppb
Figure-2 Results for lead in sequential sampling (1L water samples taken consecutively) at low, medium and high flows — Results range from 200 to 13,200 ppb

When first viewing the results, Dr. Marc Edwards (who assisted Ms. Walters in the sampling) was in disbelief. “I called Dr. Jeff Parks, who is a senior research scientist who ran the samples, and asked him if this could be an error, because we had never seen such sustained high levels of lead in 25 years of work”, he said. The samples were re-tested with extra quality assurance/quality control checks, all of which confirmed the astronomical lead levels in Ms. Walters water. Figure 3 shows close-up pictures of rust particles found in Ms. Walters’ water.

Figure 3: Looking into the bottom of a 1L water sample from Ms. Walters' house (left); close-up of large rust particles (middle and right) -- Photograph courtesy Kelsey Pieper and Min Tang
Figure 3: Looking into the bottom of a 1L water sample from Ms. Walters’ house (left); close-up of large rust particles (middle and right) — Photograph courtesy Kelsey Pieper and Min Tang

Ms. Walters and her family were not drinking the water, so it was a mystery as to how one of her kids, a four year old, could have been lead poisoned, as was evident from blood tests done after the city tested the water and found high lead levels. Their home is otherwise lead free. It is possible that in this unusual case, that the level of lead in the water was so high, that her children did not have to drink it to be exposed. Ingesting the lead indirectly, after washing their hands, showering, bathing or even washing dishes, may have caused the high lead in their blood.

We will be examining the hypothesis of the city officials, that problems with lead over the EPA Action Level are isolated to Ms. Walters’ home.

Primary Authors: Anurag Mantha and Siddhartha Roy

Acknowledgements: Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Jeffrey Parks, Ms. LeeAnne Walters

13 thoughts on “Hazardous Waste-levels of Lead found in a Flint household’s water

  1. […] We can actually still see the high lead in the Flint River water test by eye (i.e. as white particles suspended in the water). Lead levels in our test with Flint River water, were slightly above hazardous waste levels (5000 ppb), which is still lower than the worst levels of lead we detected in the home of Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters. […]

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