It has now been more than one year since we first worked with Lee-Anne Walters to thoroughly sample her house for lead and other metals. After analyzing those samples and recovering from the shocking high lead results, we eventually decided to launch what is likely the most thorough independent evaluation of a drinking water supply in U.S. history.
Those who have been following our work know that with the help of Flint residents, in August 2015 we sampled fecal bacteria, hot and cold water trihalomethanes (THMs), a full profile of metals from the source water to the tap, and even the emerging problem of opportunistic pathogens including Legionella.
We have been an honest broker. Our first reported results verified state and county claims that the fecal bacteria and THM problems in Flint were under control in August 2015. After we helped Flint residents reveal a widespread water lead problem, we laid out our logic as to why the state of Michigan was “both unscientific and irresponsible” in its claims the water was safe to drink in terms of lead levels. We then asserted the water was unsafe to because the lead levels exceeded Federal standards — we feel subsequent events have proven that our judgment was correct.
Since about early April 2016, we have increasingly been responding to citizen questions about claims made by a group that came to Flint after the Federal Emergency was declared and months after the city had switched back to Detroit water. We were initially hopeful that this group would help advance scientific understanding on behalf of Flint residents-after all they stated that they would “make certain that the irrefutable scientific data and truth leads the dialogue.”
Unfortunately, that has not been the case. This group has since proven itself to be unqualified, unscientific and irresponsible. Below we attempt to answer two exemplary questions from Flint residents, that have arisen from this groups wild and unsubstantiated claims (download their statement below).
Why is phosphate being added to the Flint water, if it causes my health problems including low blood pressure?
Answer: Low levels of phosphate are being added to Flint water to restore the protective coating that once lined Flint pipes and kept lead out of the water. About half of all utilities in the U.S. currently add phosphate to their water to control corrosion and reduce lead leaching. Phosphate was added to Flint’s water (via Detroit) for decades before the April 2014 switch.
We can find no basis for the claim that the low levels of phosphate presently added to Flint water in order to heal the system and reduce lead, can cause consumer health problems including low blood pressure.
After we heard this claim from residents and then read it in writing:
<<Group>> toxicologists have reviewed the testing results to date and have found that excessive phosphates can lead to low blood pressure which residents of Flint are reporting.”
we were initially in disbelief.
We asked twice to obtain a written statement from this group’s toxicologist(s) supporting this bizarre statement, or indeed, any rational basis for their alarmist claim. None have been provided to us.
Are we in danger from breathing lead in water into our lungs, and if so, why hasn’t EPA warned us about this health risk?
Answer: You cannot breathe significant amounts of lead from water into your lungs.
After we heard this claim and read it in writing:
<<Group>> toxicologists have reviewed the testing results to date and have found that …aerosolized particulate lead from showers …can be inhaled directly to the lungs.
we were again initially in disbelief. We again asked twice to see the toxicologist report supporting this unfounded statement, or indeed, any rational basis for this alarmist claim. None have been provided.
The group further asserted that aerosolized lead supposedly breathed into Flint consumers’ lungs, could be causing the rashes and breathing difficulties reported by residents. They also warned that following the flushing advice that all credible parties (EPA/CDC/City of Flint/Virginia Tech/MDEQ) agreed is necessary to help heal the pipes and clean out the Flint water system, could actually endanger residents:
It may be that the flushing recommendations issued last Friday by the MI DEQ and the EPA could increase the risk of released volatile chemicals and/or aerosolized <lead> particulates that pose risks of inhalation.
The group has not provided any evidence to back up this counterproductive concern.
The individuals making these claims do not have expertise in potable water systems, epidemiology or toxicology, or for that matter any credentials that would qualify them to make statements about dangers of Flint’s current water supply from phosphate or aerosolized lead.
We do not reject their claims because of their complete lack of experience and qualifications. We reject their claims because they are unable to back up their written public warnings about imminent possible dangers to Flint residents from phosphate or breathing lead from water, with scientifically plausible hypotheses, data, or supporting research.
After we pointed out problems with their logic and they failed to provide us the toxicologist reports supposedly supporting these claims, we asked that they publicly correct their erroneous statements. They have not done so. Hence, we have no alternative but to provide this FAQ to counter their irresponsible claims. The last thing Flint residents need, after what occurred through October 2015, are more unfounded and unscientific assertions about their water supply.
We further note, for the record, that when we felt the MDEQ and EPA were wrong before the declaration of the state of emergency, we called them out on it publicly and in writing. Conversely, when these groups have provided scientifically valid advice, as they are now, we will defend them. Put simply, we will call out anyone who is creating problems through bad science, and defend anyone is working towards a solution with good science.
We further believe that the EPA, State of Michigan and CDC have been doing their best to help Flint residents since at least January 2016. While the government response has not been perfect, we believe it has been very good. If anything, our only criticism, is that the Feds have erred on the side of excessive caution, when they publicly expressed concern that the lead filters might not be working at water lead levels above 150 ppb. Extensive testing data has confirmed that the lead filters do work. While understandable confusion about the protectiveness of the filters has resulted, we do not fault the agencies for erring on the side of public safety when bottled water was also available.
We are also not excusing past mistakes. But we do acknowledge the outstanding efforts of hundreds of state, federal and city employees (and others) who have been doing their utmost to help the Flint water system and residents recover. We will not stand silent, when the agencies outstanding efforts to help Flint consumers are unfairly attacked.
Download the group’s claims about Flint water:
Q+A: Dr. Marc Edwards