University of Michigan and Virginia Tech Students Spend Spring Break in Flint, MI Classrooms: Discuss Science of Flint Water Crisis

As an alternative to traditional spring break, a team of University of Michigan (UM) and Virginia Tech (VT) students/faculty spent March 4-11 engaged in Flint, MI classrooms — spreading a positive message about scientific thinking, citizen science, and the everyday heroism of Flint residents. Flint resident Ellie Jacques (Ellievate) played a major role in coordinating this effort, and we were joined by Flint hero-Mom LeeAnne Walters and her daughter Kaylie.

During the week the team connected with nearly 1000 students in grades pre-K to 12th grade at the following Flint schools: Hamady High School, Hamady Middle School, Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School, Neithercut Elementary School, Doyle-Ryder Elementary, Way Academy, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Flint, Genesee Career Institute, Grand Blanc Academy, Holmes STEM Academy, Flint Children’s Museum, Genesee Early College, and Mott Middle College.

Each visit was started with a presentation (Figures 1 a and 1b), followed by small breakout groups with students engaging in at least 5 hands-on experimental modules that included: 1) What you cannot see in your water can hurt you, 2) What boiling does and does not do, 3) The importance of pipes to civilization and health, 4) Why is free chlorine important and how to measure it, 5) The importance of corrosion control, 6) How iron corrosion can help Legionella grow (see Figures 2 a – j).

Figure 1 (a) – Each visit started with a presentation (shown here: William Rhoads and LeeAnne at Doyle-Ryder)
Figure 1 (b) – Each visit started with a presentation (shown here: William Rhoads at Genesee Early College)
Figure 2 (a) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.

Figure 2 (c) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (d) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (e) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (f) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (g) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (h) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (i) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.
Figure 2 (j) – Group presentations and breakouts between Flint students and graduate researchers from University of Michigan and VT.

Each evening we returned to the Firestone Center where Steve Wolbert of SIPI hosted us and two other alternative spring break groups for dinner. Steve invited everyday Flint heroes to join us to discuss the importance of volunteering, the Flint community, and to help us digest and reflect on our day to get the most out of this experience. One night students also heard the Flint water crisis story and discussed citizen science with Curt Guyette (ACLU Michigan), LeeAnne and Dr. Mona (Figure 3). Each day after dinner, we discussed what “worked” and what “did not work” to constantly adapt our interactions with Flint students so they got the most out of each session (Figures 4a and 4b).”  Funding for the trip came from the University of Michigan Borchardt-Glysson Water Treatment Innovation Prize.

Figure 3 – Meeting Curt, Dr. Mona, and LeeAnne at the Firestone Center for dinner
Figure 4 (a) – Discussing strategy for the presentations and breakout sessions
Figure 4 (b) – Discussing strategy for the presentations and breakout sessions

University of Michigan students who participated were Maddy Wax, Jacob Kvasnicka, Cindy Yao, Jacob Kvasnicka, Nicole Rockey, Jenine McKoy, Grace van Velden, Catherine Wilhelm, James Yonts and Raghav Reddy, and UM faculty included Lutgarde Raskin and Terri Olsen. VT students included Kathryn Little, Anurag Mantha, Christina Devine, William Rhoads, Cassandra Hockman, Margaret Carolan, Kristine Mapili, Maddie Brouse, Jeannie Purchase, Ethan Edwards and Matthew Dowdle.

Figure 5 – Much of the UM-VT team on the last day of the week.

Thanks to everyone who helped us have this great experience!

Main author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Chlorine residuals in Flint: Continued improvements

Flint residents have been asking, “Since the automated flushing stopped in November, have chlorine levels dropped because the water is not moving through the system as quickly?” 

The expectation is “No.”  Cold weather improves nearly all aspects of water quality, because lower temperatures reduce corrosion rates, slow bacteria growth, and stabilize chlorine disinfectant levels in water. On the basis of our experience with dozens of water systems in cold northern states, chlorine residuals tend to be highest in the winter and bacteria levels lowest.

To examine this question for Flint we provide two datasets.

The first is my own chlorine data collected at 3 am from my home away from home in Flint (i.e., LeeAnne Walters’ house).  Yes, I also take baths in Flint water while I am there — thankfully I have never had a problem with the rashes that afflict some residents. This house has one of the worst problems getting a chlorine residual that I have ever seen.  In summer 2015 to spring 2016, we could not get any detectable chlorine in this house, even if I ran the water continuously (Figure 1).  But in August 2016 (with flushing), or January 18, 2017 (without flushing), chlorine levels were in a satisfactory range, especially considering that the data is from a 3 am sample.  In our experience, 3 am is the worst case because that is the time of least water use across a city. This house had an automated flusher right next to it in August 2016, so it would be expected to show amongst the greatest differences with and without flushing.

Figure 1. Free chlorine at Flint house at 3 am. (Note: For the Feb 2016, chlorine was non-detectable at both midnight and 6 am, and was therefore assumed to be zero at 3 am).

Heterotrophic aerobic bacteria levels have also plummeted at this house.  The recent levels in August 2016 and January 2017 were undetectable to ≈ 500 cfu/mL, compared to the very high levels we found in August 2015 of ≈ 500,000 cfu/mL or moderately high levels in February 2016 of ≈ 7,000 cfu/mL.

The second set of data was collected by EPA from all of their standard distribution system monitoring sites located around Flint, and they were kind enough to share it with me. I made a histogram graph (Figure 2) to compare a hot month (Aug 2016) with the automated flushing on (red line) versus early December 2016 after flushing had been turned off for several weeks.  Put simply, the recent data from December shows much higher chlorine without flushing, compared to chlorine residual data from August with automated flushing. The average chlorine has increased from 0.83 mg/L in August 2016 (with automated flushing) to 1.3 mg/L in December 2016 (without automated flushing). The key reason is that temperature dropped from 23 down to 12° C.  Because temperatures have been getting even colder since,  things should continue to improve.


Figure 2. Free chlorine monitoring data from the Flint water system in August 2016 (n = 161) with automated flushing, compared to December 2016 (Dec 1-20) when automated flushing was turned off (n = 54). Chlorine levels are much higher in cold weather, even when automated flushing is turned off.

The EPA and the State will keep monitoring the situation closely. Bacteria levels were dramatically improved in Summer 2016 versus Summer 2015 based on our monitoring. If automated flushing is adopted again in summer 2017, even more improvements in chlorine and bacteria levels are possible.

In Flint MI and elsewhere, the “good news” that higher chlorine brings in terms of controlling potentially harmful bacteria, also brings “bad news” in the form of aesthetic problems.  Chlorine can irritate skin and smells like….well, chlorine. Given the trends in data above, Flint residents now perceive that chlorine levels are higher than they have been historically. That is not just a perception– that is a reality.  In general, chlorine in Flint, has historically been lower than is desired, and also lower than is common in many other cities. Now that chlorine levels are returning to levels considered normal and desirable for bacteria control, Flint residents are noting the change.

What can be done to reduce the irritation due to chlorine, which is one of the most common consumer complaints about drinking water nationally? The state provided lead filters do remove chlorine taste from the water which is used for cooking or drinking. If the chlorine is causing irritation in the shower, inexpensive shower filters do exist that can help although we do not officially recommend such filters, because they could potentially grow some harmful bacteria in a shower device designed to create aerosols that could increase human health risks. We consider purchase of such shower filters to be a personal choice.  Whole house filters can also remove chlorine, but this potentially allows harmful bacteria to grow throughout the entire volume of the building plumbing system.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Acknowledgements: Siddhartha Roy

The Flint Infrastructure Crisis: Two dinners with Flint Residents

On December 15 Flintwaterstudy had two memorable dinners with Flint residents.

The first was with three members of the original team that helped expose the Flint water crisis in 2014-2015 including “Fighting” Tony Palladeno Jr. and his partner Leah, and Melissa Mays (co-founder of Wateryoufighting4). We first met Tony when residents were getting arrested for complaining about water, and of course, we met Melissa on our original Flint visit when we tested for disinfection by-products, chlorine and bacteria in Flint water heaters and cold water taps.

Ever since early 2016, these residents have been harsh critics of the EPA, State of MI, Dr. Edwards and Flintwaterstudy – they believe the water in Flint is getting worse with each passing day. To say we had a frank exchange about these and other issues would be an understatement (our sincere apologies to El Potrero staff and customers). Nonetheless, it was good seeing them again.

Like many Flint residents, Tony and Leah are having a tough time financially, because their property investments in Flint imploded – at least partly as a result of the Flint water crisis. Imagine a scenario in which you have invested your life savings in a community in Flint, and it evaporates as many people flee a city in crisis.  On top of that consider the health and stress issues associated with the water from at least 2014-2015 and residual lack of trust. There does not seem to be any legal recourse to recover their lost investment either.  In any case, while we may never agree on anything again when it comes to Flint water quality, these residents are truly amongst the original heroes of the Flint crisis. The entire country owes Flint residents a debt of gratitude for helping to expose national problems on lead in water and decaying infrastructure.

We then had a nice dinner organized by James Milton at Tia Helitas.  James took the class on the Flint Water Crisis at UM-Flint and had a lot of great questions about infrastructure and water quality.  His mom Lucille Milton, Dave Montgomery (Urban News), Chris Frye and Kay Doerr also attended. We were joined by Keri Webber and LeeAnne Walters (who was recovering from back surgery). The problems of high water rates, crazy water bills, and shut-offs were a main topic of discussion.

There is still a lot of work to be done in Flint. We can’t solve all of these problems, but with the $170 million in Federal funding, hopefully, we can make a dent in them.

Figure 1. James, Lucille, Chris, Kay, Dave, and Marc

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

What a Difference a Year Makes: EPA Does Their Job in East Chicago.

The “bad news” is that just like science would predict, the lead pipes in East Chicago are leaching dangerous levels of lead to water in East Chicago due to a lack of corrosion control.  Thus, the horrible tragedy of childhood lead poisoning in this community is due to water “infrastructure-inequality” from lead plumbing, as well as the previously publicized lead contaminated soils.

The “good news” is that EPA Region 5 is taking a leadership role helping expose this tragedy. What a difference a year makes. Last year under old management, this same office was a world leader in obfuscation, leaving Flint’s kids completely unprotected by Federal law. Maybe it is shame over the Flint fiasco, bad management that has now resigned, or good new management—whatever the reason, let’s give credit where it is due.  Because harm from past lead exposure can never be undone– we can only prevent future harm– by helping to get East Chicago residents lead filters the EPA is doing the right thing.

On the other hand, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) remains incapable of learning from their own past mistakes.  They wrote another “scientifically indefensible” report that caused 5 years of additional harm to East Chicago children by concluding:

Sorry East Chicago kids, but CDC’s “conclusion” was just flat out wrong. You should never have been drinking the water, playing in soil, or breathing the air for that matter.

Incredibly, this flawed East Chicago report was written, just 7 months after CDC/ATSDR was publicly reamed in Congress and in the press, for false statements in 2004 that covered up the D.C. lead in drinking water tragedy.  After they got caught, CDC then attempted to completely excuse themselves by claiming “Looking backward six years, it’s clear that this report could have been written a little better (Tom Sinks, CDC)” or “.. in its urgency to rapidly assess the situation, the CDC communicated scientific results poorly (CDC Director Tom Frieden).” CDC was also quoted in the Washington Post, claiming that kids losing 3-4 IQ points were not a big deal because “at these levels, the effects are subtle” with effects that are “detectable in population studies but generally not in individual children.”

CDC then wrote another falsified report in 2010, which in Orwellian fashion claimed that their actual scientific conclusion in the 2004 report, was the exact opposite of what they actually wrote.  When called out on this falsification, they refused to respond to a letter with 21 signatories (see letter at the end).  CDC refused to retract their outrageous rewrite of history. The exact same Orwellian science stooges are probably trying to rewrite the history of East Chicago as we speak. One can only hope that there will be a change in attitude under a new director.

Of course, we are still waiting for CDC to apologize for their unethical behavior at Tuskeegee, and ignoring Tuskeegee whistleblower Peter Buxtun for 5 years, so do not hold your breath (Figure 1). CDC’s lesson learned in the aftermath of Tuskegee in 1985?  “Do the study at a time when there won’t be a bigot problem (Listen at 32:15 to 33:10).” The lesson CDC learned from D.C. was “We can get away with anything.” They did, so now kids in Flint and East Chicago had to pay a price for their ineptitude.

Figure 1. In the footsteps of Peter Buxtun. Peter and Marc at Virginia Tech December 2016.
Figure 1. In the footsteps of Peter Buxtun. Peter and Marc at Virginia Tech December 2016.

What a legacy.  One group of corrupt CDC pseudo-scientists, with the complete backing of their management, has now played a role in creating public health tragedies that needlessly elevated the blood lead of children in Washington D.C., Flint, and now East Chicago.  Not to mention promoting flawed policies that endangered children all over the U.S. and the world. They attack good actors and defend bad actors– quality science is viewed as an afterthought or an impediment. It makes the great work of some CDC/ATSDR employees who really helped in the Flint Recovery, including the CDC Legionella team and the ATSDR efforts under Dr. Patrick Breysse, all the more remarkable and appreciated.

America’s children cannot afford an untrustworthy and unethical CDC/ATSDR or EPA. Sometimes delivering “bad news” is much better than saying nothing at all– especially when comes in the form of the truth with recommended public health interventions that will protect children. We hope that EPA R5 can keep the “bad news” flowing, in accordance with both ethical science and EPA’s health mission.

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Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Understanding Flint’s Water Infrastructure Crisis: Water Infrastructure Inequality in America

The most recent research data (from EPA, CDC, MDEQ, Virginia Tech, University of South Carolina, and University of Massachusetts) who have been tracking the 2014-2016 Flint public health crisis, indicates that drinking water in Flint is now in the range of other U.S. cities in terms of lead, DBPs, and bacteria. It took a sustained effort by hundreds of State, Federal and City employees, and outside groups such as Virginia Tech, who have been working together to improve water quality since at least January 2016. Residents are still advised to use lead filters before using water for cooking or drinking because the state is still providing them free of charge, and also because we are realizing that water passing through lead service pipes should never again be termed “safe” in Flint or elsewhere.

Now that we are approaching the end of the Flint public health crisis, we must roll up our sleeves and deal with Flint’s water infrastructure crisis, which poses a major danger to Flint’s future. Herein we provide an overview of this evolving concern, and lay out some the key concepts and issues involved including:

  • Why was Flint paying amongst the highest water rates in the world?
  • Why are Flint’s rates projected to double if nothing is done?
  • Why should outside parties (i.e., U.S. taxpayers) help pay for Flint’s pipes?
  • Differences between spending money on bottled water, replacing lead pipes and upgrading water mains.


Why was Flint paying amongst the highest water rates in the world?

Many people are probably wondering, how it came to be, that residents in the second poorest city in America were paying amongst the highest water rates in the world (Table 1) for water (throughout 2014-2015) that was not suitable for anything but flushing toilets.

Table 1. Representative water rates from around the world.
Table 1. Representative water rates from around the world.

Here are three reasons.  First, the Flint water system was built for 250,000 people and a projected growth in population, but by 2014 there were less than 100,000 left to pay and keep it up. Second, water moves very slowly through a pipe system with fewer people, which can actually make corrosion damage of pipes worse, and increase the rate of damage and costs for repair. Unlike highways which degrade faster the more, they are used, water systems can actually degrade more quickly with less water use.

Third, the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine,” does apply to water main repair.  Specifically, proactively replacing water mains before they fail, saves money, compared to fixing pipes as they break. Waiting to fix pipes when they fail endangers public health due to contaminants getting into the system, causes expensive water damage from flooding, creates a sense of unease due to water service and traffic interruptions, and requires payment of emergency contractors/overtime. It is easy to understand that waiting to fix pipes when they fail, can sometimes cost 3-10 times more than fixing the same pipe before it fails. Like many cities and towns in rural America that have come on tough times financially, Flint has had no choice but to stop proactive replacements, which dramatically increases the cost of running the water system.

Figure 1. Water main breaks are very expensive.
Figure 1. Water main breaks are very expensive.

Add it all up (reasons 1-3), and a “perfect storm” is created for higher water rates, which leaves some Flint residents paying more for their water bill than for their home mortgage. This, in turn, can create something we term “an infrastructure death spiral.” Specifically, at some point, the higher water rates begin to cause even more people to leave, which increases rates further (reasons 1-3), which makes even more people want to leave. At some point, the water system becomes financially unsustainable and water rates skyrocket out of control.


Why are Flint’s rates projected to double if nothing is done?

With the added costs of the new Karegnondi pipeline, required water treatment plant upgrades and the need for new staff, and with the water mains falling even further into disrepair, Flint’s already high water rates are projected to double over the next 5 years. If nothing is done that will obviously make a bad situation even worse. To stop or reverse an infrastructure death spiral, water rates must be made affordable, so that consumers and businesses will at least stop leaving Flint, and ideally want to start returning to Flint to increase its population and economic base. Even if Flint’s water is made as safe as other cities, without upgrades to the infrastructure and making water rates affordable, the Flint water crisis is not over.  If rates double in five years another financial and/or public health crisis will occur a few years down the road.


Why should outside parties (i.e., US Taxpayers) help pay to upgrade Flint’s pipes?

There are many other cities and towns in post-industrial and rural America, who face very high water rates and unsustainable infrastructure. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy. In other countries including Canada and Germany, cities are not allowed to go bankrupt, because the state or federal government will step in to help maintain a basic level of civilization including potable affordable water for all citizens.  For better or worse, in America, there is no general mechanism by which the state or federal government will intervene—cities and towns simply get the water infrastructure that they can afford.  And ironically, taking steps to get the water infrastructure you can afford (reason 1-3), makes water even less affordable, and pushes a community into a water infrastructure death spiral. We have argued that the U.S. model, which can work reasonably well if a communities population is either growing or relatively stable, needs to change now that some cities and towns have lost enough population to become financially unsustainable.

But in the meantime, what makes Flint different?  Why should Flint receive a major influx of infrastructure funding from the state or federal government to upgrade its infrastructure, when other cities such as Detroit and rural American towns do not? The major reason is that Flint’s infrastructure was damaged, by the failure to follow federal corrosion control laws. More than a year ago we noted that this failure to install corrosion control caused major damage (perhaps hundreds of millions) to Flint water mains. Because it is now acknowledged that both the State and U.S. EPA knew about this problem, and did not act to prevent further damage to the mains, it is our belief that these entities “own” part of the problem. Hence, we strongly disagree with those who assert, that because Flint’s water quality has improved markedly over the last year, that the U.S. taxpayer should not pay to help with Flint’s the infrastructure problem.   Instead, at best, the man-made disaster will logically morph from a public health crisis phase to a water infrastructure crisis phase, and it is morally and ethically important that the State of Michigan and the Federal government continue to assist Flint with funding. We have repeatedly gone on record supporting Michigan’s congressional leadership, governor Snyder, and others, who have lobbied for federal Flint infrastructure funding.


Differences between spending money on bottled water, replacing lead pipes and upgrading water mains.

Once the money is allocated, all parties have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that it is spent, to provide Flint residents with the brightest possible future. There will be a rigorous debate about prioritization and the resultant impacts on public health and affordable water.

It is useful to consider a hypothetical scenario in which a fixed sum of money (say $170 million) is allocated to Flint’s recovery, and residents have the freedom to decide how to spend 100% of the funding for either bottled water, lead/galvanized iron service line replacement, or water main upgrades.  What are the implications for consumer confidence, public health and affordable water for each choice?

Bottled water. If all the money was spent on bottled water, given estimates that this would cost $10 million per month, Flint residents would enjoy bottled water for 17 months. But water rates would double in 5 years, main breaks would continue, and all problems with lead and galvanized iron service lines would also remain.

Lead/Galvanized Iron Pipe Replacements. Unfortunately, the lead or galvanized iron service lines that connect the home to the water mains, have little or nothing to do with Flint’s high water costs, or the reason that such costs are projected to double. If $170 million is spent on lead or galvanized iron service pipe replacement, there would be a long-term public health and psychological benefit from having the lead and old iron out of the system. There would be somewhat fewer complaints of red water from iron.  But lead and red water problems would not be completely eliminated, because there is still lead in the home plumbing from brass or solder, and there is still unlined iron pipe waters. The water rates would still likely double over the next 5 years.

Water main replacements.  By investing only in water main upgrades, we would help get water rates and main breaks under control, because in some cases every dollar spent could save 3-10 dollars in future costs. From a financial perspective, this would have the greatest impact.  But under the hypothetical example, it would also require giving up bottled water and would leave the lead/galvanized pipes in the ground.

Obviously, in an ideal world, there would be funding for everything, but the false/hypothetical example does illustrate that the decisions are not easy, and will have implications that will impact Flint for generations to come. Even under the constraint of $170 million total (which is also false because there will be a negotiation as to what is appropriate), perhaps a hybrid solution would be best in which bottled water was purchased for a few months, lead pipes are replaced or purchase of water filters is continued, and the rest of the funding is used to help reduce Flint water rates via water main upgrades.  In many ways, the public health crisis was easier to deal with, because there were fewer options available to appropriately protect people, and there were fewer tradeoffs.

Nonetheless, this example gives you a broad outline, of problems that will be faced, now that we must, to squarely address Flint’s water infrastructure crisis.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards