Flint’s current water quality status and lead filters
Is it true, that the water in Flint is still not safe to drink without a filter?
We and many others, currently believe that it is NOT safe to drink water that has passed through a lead pipe, without passing it through a certified lead filter, in Flint or any other city. The risk of having lead rust fall from the pipe into the water supply is just too great. That is something we suspected strongly before Flint, proved true in Flint, and we hope this knowledge might eventually result in changes to the definition of “safe” nationally. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are also now distributing lead filters free of charge to some customers.
But a few years ago EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water asserted that if a city met the Action Level of 15 ppb, that meant the city’s water was “safe” by law. We argued against that, but the EPA is an authority and what they say carries some weight. By their definition, which we do not support but which is used by many cities around the country, Flint’s water is currently “safe” to drink without a filter.
Do the free filters provided by the State of Michigan work to remove lead?
The EPA tested hundreds of samples in Flint before and after filtration, which indicates that the filters work to effectively remove lead, even at the very high lead levels (> 1000 ppb for some cases) that were more common in 2015 and 2016. Our own research is consistent with the EPA results.
Do the free filters provided by the State of Michigan create a problem with bacteria?
It has been known for 20+ years that these faucet filters increase bacteria levels in water, but the long-standing opinion is that these bacteria do NOT pose a significant health risk. In 2002 a scientific consensus was written stating;
WQRF cooperatively sponsored the NSF/World Health Organization (WHO) International Symposium on Heterotrophic Plate Count (HPC) Bacteria in Drinking Water Public Health Implications, convened in Geneva, Switzerland in April 2002. The WHO Expert Committee’s resulting conclusions are that “increases of HPC (microorganisms) (due to growth) in these (domestic water devices, including water softeners, carbon filters, etc.) therefore, do not indicate the existence of a health risk.” WQRF research continues to show that if the average consumer in the United States uses a point-of-use (POU) water treatment device at home on a weekly basis, they will ingest less than 2 percent of their total bacterial intake from the POU-treated water. The literature review also demonstrated that the same types of HPC bacteria are common in foods. Thus, extensive scientific evidence has objectively and consistently verified that HPC bacteria in POU- and POE-treated drinking water are not harmful.
Of course, we need to remain vigilant, and are always on the lookout for new information and potential problems. We and others will keep looking at this issue.
Do I have to use the free filters in Flint, to have water comparable to that present in other cities with old plumbing?
No. At present lead levels in Flint are comparable to other cities with older pipes. We personally drink water filtered through lead filters when we visit Flint and even in our own homes in Blacksburg– but no one can force you to use the lead filters. They are being provided by the state out of an abundance of caution to residents and we think this resource should be taken advantage of.
What if I am immunocompromised or under Doctors orders?
Any advice given by your physician, should obviously take precedence over general advice provided on this webpage or any other source, in relation to lead, bacteria or any other matter. In general, advice for immunocompromised or at-risk individuals is different than for the general public.
What about whole house filters that I keep hearing about?
We cannot recommend whole house filters in Flint or elsewhere. If they remove chlorine they leave your plumbing system vulnerable to growth of Legionella and other harmful bacteria. Even if they remove all lead at the filter, more lead can come from the pipes after the filter.
We have also seen very dubious health claims made about the performance of these filters by unscrupulous salespersons in Flint—and the price markups quoted to Flint residents are often 300-1000% beyond what these filters should cost. But beyond those warnings, installing and purchasing a whole house filter is a personal choice many Americans make. They can play an effective role in sediment removal.
We personally prefer whole house filters that do not remove all the chlorine, unless you would rather risk bacteria growing in your plumbing system versus the chlorine in your water. The faucet filters do not have plumbing after them in which bacteria can grow, so the removal of chlorine is a lesser concern.
Can a water main break increase the lead in water of a home?
Because there is no lead source in the water mains that can touch water, it is very unlikely that a main break would increase water lead in homes.
An exception is if the main break happens less than 15 meters from your house, at which point we demonstrated in a research study that the vibrations from heavy equipment needed to fix it, might shake lead loose from your pipes. But if a main broke within less than 15 meters of your house (about 50 feet), you would be more concerned about flooding than lead in water.
Are there high levels of Gadolinium and Platinum in Flint water?
As part of the most comprehensive, independent evaluation of a drinking water system that has ever been conducted (to our knowledge), in summer 2015 our team looked for Gadolinium and Platinum in hundreds of Flint samples along with other contaminants. Gadolinium and Platinum were undetectable. We looked again in samples collected in 2016 and they were still below detection.
Testing Flint’s Water right
Why have you been only testing for lead and copper? Why not the “full spectrum” of chemicals and bacteria?
We have been testing for the “full-spectrum” of chemicals and bacteria since August 2015. We posted our results online and presented summaries of the results numerous times (Here are some sampling results JUST FROM Aug 2015: chlorine levels, DBP testing, fecal bacteria, opportunistic pathogens including Legionella, corrosion causing bacteria, etc.)
It is not newsworthy to find that the hundreds of chemicals and bacteria we looked for, are at normal or below regulated levels. We found high lead and high legionella and we raised the alarm when it was appropriate to do so. Here is a snapshot of things we tested for in 2015 (presented on Jan 28, 2016):
Some other people feel justified in running to the media to sound an alarm, if they find chemicals or bacteria in Flint water, at levels that are completely normal. The 2016 false alarm about dangerous levels of chloroform in Flint water, which needlessly made some Flint consumers fear bathing or showering, is a counter-productive example.
Why don’t you share “detailed lab reports” from your testing but only spreadsheet results?
The “detailed lab reports” recently discussed in Flint, are the results provided by commercial laboratories to customers who want to have a few samples analyzed here or there. In high volume professional laboratories, such as ours at Virginia Tech, the original data from the instrument is downloaded directly to spreadsheets. We provide that original data to our research partners and consumers upon request.
Consider our metals analysis (ICP-MS) samples alone- we run over 30,000 samples every year with 30 elements per run. All of our equipment is cutting edge—we do not compete with commercial labs for business of small customers. All of the relevant “details” are provided in our spreadsheet printouts. Use of spreadsheets also minimizes use of paper, which would not be a big deal if we only ran about 30 samples per year, but which is a significant issue when running a thousand times that number of samples.
Should I test water for lead at the water meter or the bottom of a water heater?
By definition, testing at the water meter or from the bottom of a water heater, is an “improper sample” according to EPA Lead and Copper Rule monitoring protocols. There is no way to get a water sample from inside the meter, in a manner that represents the water as you would consume it. Unscrewing plumbing (or screw ports) to collect samples, will put tiny pieces of metal containing lead into the water that is not normally present. That is known as a “false positive,” because it will make your sample have high lead in it when it normally does not. If you collect water from inside the meter via a nearby “hose bib,” that will also create a “false positive” because hose bibs contain high lead and were not designed to dispense water fit for human consumption — they were excluded from the lead leaching performance tests of the National Sanitation Foundation for that reason.
It is also important to note that EPA has always recommended that consumers never drink hot water, because it will often contain higher lead. Water heaters are not only hot water, but they are also designed to remove and collect sediment, so sampling from the bottom of a water heater via the sediment clean out valve will also give a “false positive” and is an improper sample.
The only proper samples for lead, according to the law, must be collected from a cold water kitchen or bathroom tap. If you collect it any other way, it has little or nothing to do with drinking water.
Why would someone violate protocols, and test for lead “at the water meter” or from the bottom of a water heater, and try to pass off the resulting “false positive” result as if it were a proper sample of public health concern?
We have no idea.
Could there be chemicals in the water that YOU don’t know about?
There are many chemicals in all water, including rain water and bottled water, that we (and no one) analyzes for, or really knows about. We are learning more about the chemicals in water all the time. Some of those chemicals are naturally occurring and some are man-made.
What if you are wrong?
Science is all about being skeptical and continuously thinking about all the ways you might be wrong. If we are wrong, as we must be some of the time, we aspire to be the first to discover and admit it. There is no shame in that. Anyone who claims they are always right, or who lacks humility, is unscientific and dangerous in our book.
Why don’t we have bathing and showering standards?
When regulations for disinfection by-products (DBPs) were being considered, it was well known that a significant danger from these chemicals was via consumer exposure in showers. However, when it came to the question of how to sample and regulate that risk, a decision was made to sample the cold water in mains. The general idea is that if you can meet a regulatory goal in a cold water main, you are also controlling health risk in the shower or bath, even though it was understood that levels would sometimes increase when water traveled to the bath or shower.
The alternative of actually collecting samples in baths or showers for DBPs was discussed and discarded, because every shower and bath system is different in terms of water heater type, temperature and tank size, and it was desirable to collect samples that are comparable from one city to another.
It is important to note that DBPs are not like lead. Lead samples must be collected inside the home, because there is generally no lead in the water main. In contrast, we have never seen a sample collected in a shower or bath with very high DBPs, when the cold water sample collected from the water main was very low. By keeping DBPs below set values in the water mains, you are also indirectly controlling risks for bathing and showering. There is no serious discussion underway about collecting DBP regulatory compliance samples in bath or shower water.
On the other hand, we do not presently have standards for Legionella bacteria in baths or showers, even though it is more like lead. Legionella can be nearly zero in cold water mains but very high in some baths and showers. Legionella problems in home water, is a relatively new problem for the water industry and EPA– we are still working out how to best control this risk.
Read more in our piece on “Perspectives on Bathing and Showering in the U.S.”
Direct Response to Public Assertions and Insinuations Made Against Us by a Few Individuals
Has Dr. Marc Edwards been bought by the State, or EPA?
Dr. Edwards does not receive any extra financial compensation for his research with the EPA, State of Michigan, or Greater Flint Community Foundation. These contracts have been set up, so that for every hour that Dr. Edwards works on Flint research, money for that time goes to Virginia Tech to compensate for not doing work for the University– it does not increase Dr. Edwards’ take home pay.
Dr. Edwards is also a fully salaried employee at Virginia Tech (12 months), with tenure, and his take home pay or job status is at relatively low risk when calling out powerful entities such as the State of MI, EPA, CDC or other groups– as he has done repeatedly throughout his career when appropriate. For the record, the Virginia Tech team spent $300K out of pocket, and donated years of volunteer effort to Flint relief, before any research funding was made available from the above sources for their Flint work starting in April 2016.
It is very common (and even normal) for professors to make extra salary on research projects, but that is not the case for Dr. Edwards’ research in Flint. That said, we would never claim that other professors have “been bought” if they did accept compensation from the State or EPA for research. Nor have we ever directly criticized others, who did not lift a finger to assist Flint residents with research or sampling, until they were fully compensated to do so.
And while we generally make it a practice, to avoid tooting our own horn, we do have a right to defend ourselves against misguided accusations. Our refusal to “be bought,” has actually been widely recognized by many awards including the IEEE Barus and Villanova Praxis award for professional ethics bestowed before Flint. Dr. Edwards is also an outspoken advocate regarding the obligation of engineers to speak out if they see something wrong and for honoring the sacrifices of Whistleblowers.”
Compare our record to the record (if any) of the few who make public accusations against us.
What about movie or book deals?
To date, Dr. Edwards has assisted in production of dozens of Flint documentaries for free, and turned down all offered compensation for either book and movie deals. We have no problem with others who have book deals, movie deals, or receive compensation for that work. If our status changes in the future, we will let you all know via Flintwaterstudy.
What about the students and other members of the Flintwaterstudy team?
All of our team worked one year, through April 2016, as uncompensated volunteers. Since that time VT students have been paid through the university, for some of their work in Flint, via the aforementioned research projects.
The students have been informed that book and movie deals are their own business. To our knowledge they have not accepted offers of compensation to date. We have also made it a policy to help anyone who wants to tell the Flint story without compensation. To date we have devoted months of time to such efforts.
Why do you now support the EPA, the State and the CDC in Flint?
Our general philosophy is that if someone wants to be a truth-seeker and solve problems, we will work with them, and if they are using science to obfuscate or harm people we will fight them. When the EPA and State (or anyone) are doing bad things or are wrong, we will call them out. If they are doing good work, we will say that as well.
It is important to remember that some people change for the better, and some people change for the worse. Some people are good scientists today and bad scientist’s tomorrow, and vice versa. The same is true for government agencies and normal citizens. We all have to point out bad actors and applaud good actors, so that change is overall in a positive direction. That can only happen if all parties are working together with honesty and integrity.
While we strive to be honest and good scientists ourselves, we do worry that tomorrow we will make a mistake that could hurt people. We live in fear of doing so, and aspire to be our own toughest critics, so that we can minimize our likelihood of mistakes to the extent possible. We cannot eliminate mistakes completely. Science is all about questioning yourself, seeking truth and helping others.
So far we are proud of our own efforts in Flint. Generally speaking, since the declaration of the Federal Emergency in early 2016, we feel all the key players (State of MI, EPA, CDC) have been effectively assisting with the recovery. There have been a few miscues and we have pointed those out. If we see something wrong, we will speak out about it without hesitation.
Why won’t you work with Water Defense?
If Water Defense ever retracted their false scientific statements that harmed the Flint recovery effort, and if they stopped needlessly scaring people into thinking that there were unusual dangers lurking in present day Flint water when the data does not support that position–we would work with Water Defense.
However, it seems Water Defense is dedicated to spreading misinformation and collecting misleading samples from: 1) inside water meters, 2) from sediment clean out ports at the bottom of water heaters, and 3) from anywhere they can toss or stuff their “Waterbug” sponges (data from which is not comparable to any standard or other measurement approach). Hence, we are prepared for the likelihood they will never retract their false statements.
We also remind residents, that Water Defense personnel have a business model, that would profit from whole house and filters, to correct problems they find through their non-standard sampling techniques. This strikes us as a very significant conflict of interest, which has raised eyebrows and concerns of others.
Has the portrayal of harm in Flint, been occasionally overstated by some media, with potentially harmful consequences to children?
We believe so. When we were in Flint schools during spring break, we were alarmed at the number of Flint children who told us they had been permanently brain damaged and were therefore not capable of learning. Some teachers said that about the students as well. The reality is that because Flint residents, Virginia Tech, ACLU-Michigan and the local health community (Dr. Mona and colleagues) acted so decisively in September 2015, and then the state provided filters and bottled water and advice about avoiding lead in early October 2015, a greater tragedy was averted.
This is not to downplay the harm that was done, or the crimes that were possibly committed, but the elevations in blood lead (excluding those with high blood lead) did not cause anything that should be characterized as “permanent brain damage” for a typical child in Flint. To the extent that anyone overstates that message, and causes Flint children to believe it– it is indeed very harmful.
As Dr. Mona has said of Flint children “They are smart, they are strong, they are bright, they’re resilient and they’re brave.” With support and a positive outlook from all parties, they will have a bright future.
Q+A: Dr. Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy