Some Common Misunderstandings of Flint’s Lead in Water Problem

Overall, the media has done a great job explaining the corrosion control problems in Flint, providing simple but scientifically accurate explanations—but misunderstandings still arise here and there. Below we correct some of the most common errors.

1) Myth: The lead in water is coming from the home plumbing of Flint consumers.

Fact: The worst water lead problems have been associated with city owned lead service pipes. Some people have estimated that about half of Flint’s homes are served by lead service lines, but in reality no one really knows how many pipes are present or even where they are. Even if the entire city of Flint had lead free home plumbing, there still would have been a serious lead in water problem.

2) Myth: If the city of Flint, its consumers and schools had been investing and “upgrading their infrastructure” or their “fixtures,” they would not be having a lead in water problem.

Fact: It is so costly to completely replace plumbing infrastructure including:
1) pure lead service pipes (often city owned),
2) pipes with lead solder (legal and the standard until 1986),
3) galvanized iron pipes (often contains lead), and
4) brass plumbing devices containing lead (standard until January 2014)
that very few consumers, cities and schools have “upgraded” their infrastructure in a manner that could have stopped this problem. If Federal laws that require corrosion control were violated, as they were in Flint, most major U.S. cities also would have had a very serious lead-in-water problem.

3) Myth: “Flint residents got what they paid for…” or “Flint could not afford to treat their water correctly.”

Fact: MDEQ’s decision to not install corrosion control after switching to the corrosive Flint River source, was a financial disaster that will eventually cost Flint consumers and the City on the order of a hundred million dollars in damaged infrastructure. Each $1 dollar invested in corrosion control typically saves $5-10 in plumbing damage avoided, so it is a wise investment. For reasons to be discussed in a future column, the return on investment for corrosion control in Flint would have been much, much higher. The failure to install corrosion control in Flint, was the financial equivalent of “pulling the plug” on a city that was already on life support.

4) Myth: “Each city should be able to decide the quality of water they receive….,”

Fact: There are Federal laws that set enforceable minimum standards that every city must have, which includes a requirement for corrosion control and stringent monitoring of lead. These laws should have been followed in Flint.

5) Myth: Flint has always met EPA Standards for lead in water.

Fact: MDEQ violated the letter and spirit of the Federal Lead and Copper Rule in at least 3 different ways in Flint– each of which made it falsely appear that Flint’s water was safe when it was not. On the heels of excellent reporting by ACLU-Michigan, the City of Flint itself acknowledges it did not sample enough of the required homes with lead pipe. Simply put, Flint has not had a legal EPA water lead sampling event since switching to Flint River (and possibly even before that).

6) Myth: Other cities in Michigan and throughout the U.S. have worse water lead problems.

Fact: While there is little doubt that the 25 year old Federal lead law has loopholes and is not achieving its original intent, we are not aware of another city in the U.S. with a lead problem as bad as Flint’s (since the 2001-2006 Water Lead Crisis in Washington D.C.)

7) Myth: Lead in Flint water is now “safe” or is still “unsafe.”

Fact: No one really knows the current status of lead in Flint’s water supply. We have taken the position that until Flint actually passes a round of legitimate EPA lead and copper rule monitoring–it should be assumed unsafe for cooking or drinking.

8) Myth: Lead in water is normally a “minor source of lead in blood,” or contributes “less than 20% of lead in blood.”

Fact: The actual Federally mandated language states that water lead contributes “20% or more” to blood lead not “20% or less.” It further states that for infants with formula, lead in water can be almost the sole source to lead in blood. Interestingly, early this year we traced the genesis of misinformation that lead in water contributes “20% or less” to lead in blood (See Table 1). It actually all started with a typo in public education materials of a water utility, and then EPA started citing the language with the typo, and the erroneous language was attributed to EPA. In any case, when we brought the mistake to their attention, the utility and EPA finally corrected the 10+ years old error. The “less than 20%” urban legend language was cited by CDC, utilities, EPA and public health departments, to downplay water lead dangers to children, and it was also cited by MDEQ last week.

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Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

2 thoughts on “Some Common Misunderstandings of Flint’s Lead in Water Problem

  1. Simple basic questions:
    “Why is the Flint River water so corrosive?”
    “Could communities reliant on groundwater sources for drinking water be at risk for possible increasing trends in chlorides?”
    “Is there a correlation between road salt and mobilization of heavy metals?”
    “How much lead is still out in our local environments since we quit burning it in gasoline back in the 70’s?”
    “If that lead is still out there in the roadside environment, how much of it could be mobilized through natural processes of wind erosion or perhaps road salt mobilization?”
    “Might the lead burnt in gasoline pose any long term problems?”

  2. Regarding your statement “we are not aware of another city in the U.S. with a lead problem as bad as Flint’s”. Take a look at this Pennsylvania Department of Health: 2014 Childhood Lead Surveillance Annual Report . On page 47 there is a list of 20 Pennsylvania cities.

    Allentown had 23.11% of the children tested there testing higher than 5 µg/dL. Altoona had 20.45%. 17 other cities in that state had more than 10%. A lot of children were tested: Allentown 19.49% of all children in the city were tested. Altoona 18.9%.

    What Dr Hanna-Attisha reported in her study was the worst area of Flint had 10.6% of the children who were tested tested above 5 µg/dL.

    Another thing to consider is that by definition, the CDC 5 µg/dL reference level means that about 600,000 children in the US will test higher than 5 µg/dL. The CDC decides what this number will be by taking the 97.5 percentile of the NHANES figures for blood lead levels in US children, i.e. if you test higher than 5 µg/dL, 97.5% of all US children are expected to test lower than that. But it means that 2.5% or 600,000 children will test higher.

    So Flint may be unique in that it was blundering officials at many levels who managed to screw things up so stupidly that the blood lead levels in children suddenly spiked up. Lead in children’s blood has been generally declining all over the US.

    But there will always be about 600,000 children testing higher than the CDC reference. The CDC expects communities to become alarmed when children suddenly start testing higher than their reference and do something about it. This is expected to result in continued declining US average blood lead values. Every four years the CDC will publish a new reference that is expected to be lower. By definition, there will still be 600,000 children in the US who would test higher.

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