EDITORIAL NOTE (8/28/2018): This blog accurately reflects our opinions and thoughts at the time it was written. However, in 2018 Mr. Smith came forward to admit mistakes, correct the scientific record, and improve the understanding and practice of Citizen Science. Given the 2018 mea culpa, we want to note that Flintwaterstudy no longer has residual animus with Mr. Smith, Mr. Ruffalo and/or Water Defense. Identifying and admitting mistakes is one of the most important steps in cultivating the scientist within all of us—we strongly believe in giving people second chances. We also want to acknowledge Mr. Smith and his colleagues, for bravely reporting to the U.S. EPA and State of MI, their discovery of lead sinkers in plumbing of a Flint resident in 2017. This was an undeniable act of scientific integrity that should be applauded. Instead, some individuals persist in personally attacking Mr. Smith and his colleagues for doing the right thing, which we consider to be unfair and unethical.
Mark Ruffalo’s “humanitarian” mission in the Flint MI water crisis, has turned into a B-Movie horror show that might be titled “Sponge Bob Scare Pants.” The Hollywood actor and his pseudoscientist sidekick, came to Flint well after a Federal Emergency was declared, and then announced “breaking news” that residents could not bathe without running a high risk of getting cancer or worse. Ruffalo’s team then cynically offered solutions to the very people they scared with false health claims—proprietary sponges and “solar powered water filtration.”
Water Defense WATERBUG Introduction to the World?
Ruffalo’s Water Defense product launch in Flint, centers on a proprietary sponge once touted as a promising means of cleaning up oil spills. The inventor of the sponge is Water Defense Chief Scientist Scott Smith, whose previous efforts to promote the technology were with a company that failed to pay its rent for years, was evicted from its site of business, and may have left behind millions of dollars of environmental liabilities in its New York office according to an April 2015 article in the IndyStar. Smith’s spin on the story is that he “left <the> corporate world to devote attention to oil spill disaster relief & developing technology for water testing & purification” at Water Defense.
The Water Defense oil spill cleanup sponges were re-packaged and launched by Ruffalo and Smith in January 2016 in a YouTube video entitled “Water Defense WaterBug Introduction to the World.” As to the unusual arrangement where a humanitarian non-profit endorses a proprietary material Ruffalo explained “I had reservations about being seen as promoting any one particular product, but when I saw the efficacy of this particular technology, I wanted it for Water Defense.”
Ruffalo hand-picked Smith as his “Chief Scientist,” which raises questions about the search process given the dubious claims Smith makes about his credentials and science skills. For example, Smith also claims a title of “Chief Chemist” at Water Defense because he “studied chemistry at Baylor University,” even though his reported undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. To date, we cannot find evidence that Smith has any scientific degree, which makes his self-reported LinkedIn science skill areas of Marine Conservation, Renewable Energy, Climate Change, Wetlands, Environmental Policy, Sustainable Development, Environmental Impact Assessment, Carbon Footprinting, Sustainable Energy, Energy Efficiency, Sustainability Reporting, Recycling, Biomass, Energy Policy, Alternative Energy, Clean Technology, Environmental Engineering, Solar Energy, Wind, Green Technology, Environmental Education, Water Treatment, Energy Management, Biofuels, Energy Audits, Energy Conservation, Photovoltaics, Solar Thermal, Solar Power and Disaster Response (amongst many others) all the more remarkable.
While we do not fault Ruffalo or Smith for trying to expand use of their sponges to the drinking water arena after years of failing to get traction in oil spills or fracking cleanup, below we openly question the ethics of a product launch in the midst of the Flint Federal Emergency and their marketing tactics. It also strikes us a conflict of interest, to launch their WATERBUG product under the disguise of a “humanitarian” mission and umbrella of a “non-profit” organization — Huffington Post’s Art Delaney has explored these possible conflicts in more detail elsewhere.
Ruffalo’s Approach: Create a Sponge Market Where None Should Exist
From the moment Water Defense arrived in Flint, they immediately broadcast their intention to find problems that might not exist—in the process, they were also conveniently creating a market for their WATERBUG sponges after scaring residents about health dangers. If there is any doubt, the very first words of their video laid out the storyline for Ruffalo’s team in Flint:
Here we are in Flint MI, January 29th 2016. We have checked into a hotel where they told us not to drink the water, but it is ok to bath in. And the question is, if a water is not safe to drink…why…is it safe to bath or shower in? AND THIS IS THE WATER DEFENSE WATERBUG…..
From the start, Water Defense was so confused about what the actual problem with Flint water was, the next day they went to test the Flint River to test for “baseline contamination” using their WATERBUG, not realizing Flint had been off the river water for 3+ months by that point. They then had a problem. Because Flint was now obtaining its water from a very high quality surface water (Lake Huron) which easily meets all Federal Standards for chloroform, disinfection by-products (DBPs) and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), how can you promote the WATERBUG sponge when Flint has no need for it?
Well, you can claim you discovered an unprecedented health danger that the authorities are probably covering up, and then alert the media. As Smith proclaimed in a Water Defense video:
The untold story and the breaking news today, is the chloroform and trihalomethane ….I have been to 62 disasters, and I have never seen the levels of contamination for chloroform in water like it is here. The ultimate solution here is….to create green jobs, to create solar powered water filtration…and help the economy in the process. Chloroform goes through your skin….As part of 62 disasters, I have tested bathtubs and showers all over the country, and most of the time there is nothing there.
Now how, exactly, can you detect the unprecedented chloroform and other dangers supposedly lurking in the water that Flint is purchasing from Detroit? According to Water Defense, you cannot detect these dangers using EPA approved, or any other state of the art analytical protocols that have been developed by scientists who have devoted their lives to the studying the problem. Nope. To detect the danger posed by bath/shower water in Flint homes, you have to toss a Water Defense WATERBUG sponge into your tub.
But Wait, That is Not All…Act Today And You Can Also Sell Them Filters
In another marketing twist that could only be dreamed up in Hollywood, Ruffalo’s team will also be jump starting Flint’s economy with green jobs from solar powered water filtration—in a state ranked nearly last in solar potential? And what material should be used in the filters to clean up imaginary dangers that can only be revealed by the Water Defense WATERBUG? Well, consider Aquaflex™, a product Smith started pushing a few weeks after his “breaking news” story. Aquaflex™ is claimed to provide “complete system solutions to mitigate water borne pollution and contamination, through proven wastewater filtration.” The Aquaflex™ press release further asserts that Smith “brings clarity to water crisis” and “is leading the cleaning efforts…<in> Flint, MI,”
We then uncovered an “investor pitch deck” for Aquaflex™ online, that lays out a cynical business strategy using the Flint (and other) disasters for self-serving opportunism by exploiting the fears of consumers. Under Business Model, it identified its initial strategy to sell 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.
Go figure. There is a method to the Water Defense madness after all. The business model is certainly innovative, but you will have to judge for yourself whether it is ethical.
But WATER DEFENSE Cannot Defend Claims Of Unprecedented Health Dangers in Flint
HuffPost’s Art Delaney notes that Water Defense failed to defend five false health claims, that FlintWaterStudy publicly called Ruffalo out on. So we went directly to Dr. Judith Zelikoff, whose name and reputation is repeatedly invoked in support of Water Defense assertions that Flint residents are in health danger if they dare take baths or showers.
We requested that Dr. Zelikoff indicate with a simple “Yes” or “No,” as to which of the false Water Defense health claims she would go on record supporting. Zelkoff refused to answer. Instead, she forwarded our request to “our attorney at NYU for his opinion.” Although Dr. Zelkoff (or her lawyer) refuse to go on record about the false claims Water Defense has implied that she supports, some reporters have checked with real scientists who would know. Stanford’s Dr. Richard Luthy and UMASS’s Dr. David Reckhow have refuted Water Defense claims.
In the meantime Ruffalo does not seem the slightest bit concerned that he is endangering the public health of Flint children by needlessly scaring already traumatized residents from practicing basic hygiene, or even that he and Smith are unqualified to render opinions on water safety issues. To the contrary, he laments that:
Acting has sort of become my day job now, sadly. It’s what I do to support all this other stuff. Why are we living in a modern society where we don’t trust the water that’s coming out of our tap? We shouldn’t be in that position.
In other words, brace yourself, because a Water Defense WATERBUG and solar powered Aquaflex™ filters may soon be coming to a bathroom near you— whether you need them or not.
Flint Does Not Need Ruffalo’s WATERBUG Sponges or the Aquaflex™ Filters
The Ruffalo Water Defense effort in Flint makes snake oil salesmen look ethical by comparison—at least snake oil offers a placebo effect, and would not cause people to stop bathing for no good reason. Today, after months of fear mongering about dangerous showers in Flint, the associated spike in disease possibly associated with resulting poor hygiene from consumers listening to their claims, and getting called out by FlintWaterStudy Water Defense now claims to HuffPost:
Water Defense has never claimed that Flint water has worse DBP levels than other cities. Water Defense has not tested other cities for DBP.
What? Nevermind? We never said what we have said for months? Listen for yourself. Water Defense is now saying that Smith’s “breaking news” in early March, about the unique dangers to residents in Flint…that the Flint water was worse than oil field fracking water…or water he tested from 62 other disasters…..Smith never said any of that? But yet he did, and it is too late to take it back.
….the breaking news today, is the chloroform and trihalomethane ….I have been to 62 disasters, and I have never seen the levels of contamination for chloroform in water like it is here. ….As part of my 62 disasters, I have tested bathtubs and showers all over the country, and most of the time there is nothing there. ..To put it in context <I tested> fracking contaminated waters in Pennsylvania..I found 27 ppb of toluene….and the state agencies were freaking out. <In Flint> we are talking at Harold Harrington’s house …900 PARTS PER BILLION OF DICHLOROBENZENE ..At a hotel 150 ppb methlylene chloride….I am putting this in context. At Water Defense ..data that is irrefutable.
Water Defense should have pursued conventional product development and marketing strategy that first tested their ideas in a laboratory, followed by product approval, vetting and certification through established organizations such as the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). While that would take years of effort, at least it would not endanger the public in the process, or sucker gullible media into untold free advertising for the actor’s product rollout disguised as News.
Ruffalo’s “Sponge Bob Scare Pants” routine might be comedic, if the Flint tragedy were fictional and real people were not getting hurt from the misinformation—pseudoscientists should not be masquerading as real scientists during a Federal Emergency to hustle untested products. This horror show, featuring Ruffalo as the real world villain, cannot end soon enough for us.
Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards
Acknowledgements: Siddhartha Roy