We have been collaborating with students in the classroom of Ms. Vickie Weiss, on a series of corrosion experiments to scientifically test claims made by the State of Michigan regarding lead problems in Flint drinking water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has repeatedly claimed that:
- Problems with lead in Flint water have nothing to do with corrosivity, and are due to customers bad plumbing or fixtures.
- They are perplexed by our lab experiments that show up to 20 times higher lead in Flint River water than in Detroit water.
- Doing corrosion experiments before switching to Flint water is complicated and has never been done in the state of Michigan
- It is “ideal” to just change the waters, and then wait years to see if the MDEQ testing (lead in water and kids blood) shows a problem or not
In any case, science is supposed to be about TESTABLE HYPOTHESES, and experimental results should be REPRODUCIBLE by anyone. Hence, we provided experimental apparatus to Ms. Weiss’ classroom, another local high school and to Brad Wurfel at MDEQ, so that they could do the science themselves if they were interested. The elementary and high school students were very interested and did the simple testing—as of the time we wrote this article, MDEQ did not respond to our query about how their testing was going.
We shipped all three parties glass jars which had lead bearing plumbing in them, comprised of copper coupons with 50% lead solder on it — intending to simulate the effect of water chemistry in pipes of old homes with lead solder (see Figure 1). They randomly picked sample jars that would be filled with either Flint water or Detroit water. There were 5 groups of students from City School, and each group had a jar into which they poured Flint water or Detroit water.
The students labeled and sent us tubes with water samples from their experiment to analyze on our Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS) run by Research Scientist Dr. Jeffrey Parks.
Analysis at Virginia Tech: A Small Guide
After we receive samples from the school in the tubes (see below), the first thing we do is add 2% concentrated nitric acid (HNO3) to each sample to dissolve any particulate lead:
Then we transfer the samples into 13 ml tubes that can be run on an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectroscopy or ICP-MS (aka “The Beast”):
Next, we load them on to the ICP-MS’ auto-sampler, which has a moving needle to inject the sample into the machine:
Once the water sample has been injected into the ICP-MS (see below), it passes through a nebulizer, which breaks the water constituents and vaporizes it. The vaporized sample then goes into a plasma chamber, where it is heated up to 8000-10,000 K (Kelvin). This is almost two times hotter than the surface of the sun.
Here is a representative picture of the plasma inside an ICP-MS (courtesy of Saclay Institute of Matter and Radiation, France):
Finally, the plasma goes into a series of voltage gates, which is read by the computer and the results are shown on the screen:
The ICP-MS analysis is overseen by Research Scientist Dr. Jeffrey Parks:
The students visually confirmed that much more white particles were being released in the jars containing Flint River water, and that the levels of white particles continued to increase as time passed (roughly four weeks). The jars containing Detroit water, on the other hand, have remained relatively clear for the duration of the test.
The students hypothesized that the white particles they saw in the Flint River water were made of lead, and that they were actually seeing higher lead in the Flint River water test than the Detroit water test, suggesting a much higher corrosivity of Flint River water compared to Detroit water. This was confirmed when the students’ samples were run on the ICP-MS.
Round 1 graphs show intermediate results, and Round 2 graphs are at the end of about four weeks:
Along with the sample tubes, Ms. Weiss’ class also sent us copies of their lab reports which had student comments. Some highlights from their lab reports are below:
Drew Hertzberg, 10/23: “… Flint water is DISGUSTING!”
Drew Hertzberg, 10/26: “The Detroit water does not have a lot of led in the water. I am very thankful that my water comes from Detroit!” (sic)
Jillian Smith, 10/23: “IS Flint ever going to fix this issue?”
Jillian Smith, 10/26: “…Detroit water has greenish blueish colored particles, almost like copper.”
Estella, 10/20: “There are so many white things in the flint water it looks like a snow globe!…”
Estella, 10/26: “… Detroit water there are little blue things floating around in the water and the flint water has a lot of little white things in it.”
Ridley Stratton, 10/26: “Flint = SNOW GLOBE”
Riya Achuri, 10/20: “Predictions: I think that the Flint water will have more led in it because it is more open to it.” (sic)
Riya Achuri, 10/26: “Detroit water: There is a lot of led in the Detroit water but not as much as there is in the Flint water.”
Ellyson Nicholson, 10/20: “2. What are so different about the two water jars” (sic)
Caroline Cramer, 10/26: “Flint looks like a snowglobe and Detroit looks like nothing barely happened.”
Carson Kuhlmann, 10/20: “Will scientists ever be able to remove the led from the Flint water?” (sic)
Lucia, 10/23: “Flint: Looks like a snow globe. White everywhere you can hardly see the copper pipe” (sic)
Alex Li, 10/26: “The Detroit still has not changed but the flint’s lead started to blend with the water” (sic)
Krisna Pedavalli, 10/23: “Flint water: The water is getting super dirty I just don’t know how people in Flint drink that water sometimes.” (sic)
Aiden Pulling, 10/23: “Detroit looks the same as 10/20 and flint turned into a pot of shredded paper that’s wet” (sic)
Sophia, 10/20: “Both containers have some lead particles, but the Flint water has more lead. The Flint water looks bad and unhealthy to drink…”
Nicholas Stokes, 10/20: “..Questions: What is with the flint river chemistry that causes the corrosion? What does lead do in the body to make us sick?”
Nicholas Stokes, 10/26: “There is enough lead in the jar for it to be a snow globe. Now I see why people are getting sick. That is way too much lead…”
The elementary school students visual and experimental data, confirm that the Flint River water (without inhibitor) is much more corrosive to lead than Detroit water.
Experiments to test corrosivity of water are NOT complicated. MDEQ should consider such tests in the future. It would be a viable alternative to their current (ideal?) approach of changing the water source and seeing if kids’ blood lead spikes.
Role Play Exercise — Flint Water Crisis
Primary Authors: Anurag Mantha and Dr. Marc Edwards
Experiments: Ms. Weiss’ class from City School, Grand Blanc MI
Acknowledgements: Siddhartha Roy