UMass Experts Recruited To Address DBP Questions In The Aftermath Of The Flint Water Crisis

The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a tragedy. The lead (Pb) issue is well documented, as are the health effects from ingesting lead. No safe blood Pb level in children has been identified, and exposure to elevated levels of Pb can cause intellectual impairment and other health issues.

More recently, concerns have arisen regarding disinfection byproducts (DBPs) in Flint drinking water. Unlike exposure to high levels of Pb, the risk from DBPs is a chronic exposure risk, not an acute poisoning risk. In general, consuming elevated levels of DBPs is thought to cause an increased risk of some cancers over a typical lifetime. For this reason, some representative DBPs are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Water Act.

DBPs are formed in the water distribution system through an oxidation reaction between chlorine and natural organic matter (NOM). This formation of DBPs is an unfortunate negative consequence of adding chlorine for water disinfection, which is very common in the United States and other countries. Water chlorination has been practiced for 112 years, starting in Jersey City.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of water chlorination–perhaps the most important public health breakthrough of modern civilization, leading to eradication of most waterborne disease. However, the chlorine required to inactivate pathogens also reacts with NOM to form halogenated (chlorine is a halogen) organic byproducts including total trihalomethanes (aka TTHMs) and Haloacetic Acids (HAAs). This reaction is well understood, and is known to be a function of NOM concentration and character, pH, chlorine dose, time, temperature and other factors. DBPs are always formed whenever chlorine is added to surface waters, but the concentration and type of DBPs vary somewhat from city to city.

TTHMs in Flint water were shown to be problematic in 2014, with violations noted in the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) of that year. (A similar violation for HAAs occurred in Amherst, Massachusetts that same year). Recently, DBPs including TTHMs have drawn attention following the discovery of Pb and other issues in the Flint Water system, and the subsequent measurement of some DBPs by non-scientists. However, the methods used in this sampling were unorthodox, relying on proprietary sponges marketed by the group, to collect samples, and the results are not comparable to refined and standard scientific methods. There are proven, peer-reviewed and published methods for collecting and analyzing DBP samples. These methods were refined by researchers at UMass, and trustworthy data that is scientifically rigorous are needed during times of crisis.

The UMass team was recruited by Virginia Tech, to execute the advanced DBP sampling. The team (lead by Dr. David Reckhow) is bringing drinking water quality expertise, to quantify the extent of DBP formation in the drinking water currently delivered to Flint residents, following the switch back to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD). It should be noted that, before the switch to Flint River in 2014, DWSD water was far below regulatory limits for TTHMs and HAAs, and no changes to the system during the water crisis is expected to affect formation of DBPs in the Flint system.

Initial results from samples collected in May 2016 indicate that there is nothing exceptional about DBP levels in Flint. Additional rounds of sampling and analyses are now being conducted to gather more information. Beyond regulated TTHMs and HAAs, the UMass team is also conducting analysis for >60 unregulated byproducts to get a more complete picture of the drinking water quality.Results from analysis will be forthcoming.

Members of the UMass Flint DBP Team include:

Dr. Dave Reckhow (Team Lead)

Dr. Joe Goodwill (DBP sampling, THMs, Iodo-THMs and other volatiles)

Yanjun Jiang (Iodo-THMs and other volatiles)

Xuyen Mai (DBP sampling)

Xian “Max” Ma (DBP sampling, Haloacetamides)

Ran Zhao (Haloacetamides and HAAs)

Soon-Mi Kim (Haloacids)

Yun “Rosa” Yu (N-halo-haloacetamides)

Aarthi Mohan (Halobenzoquinones)

Pranav Mashankar (Aldehydes)

Sherrie Webb-Yagodzinski (Sampling preparation)

Select members from both UMass Amherst and Virginia Tech during a sampling trip in late-May
Select members from both UMass Amherst and Virginia Tech during a sampling trip in late-May

Primary Author: Dr. Joseph Goodwill

Acknowledgements: Drs. Dave Reckhow and Marc Edwards

Updates on Special Flint Sampling: Flushing and Lead, Disinfection By-Products and Legionella Sampling (May 31st 2016)

Presenters: Drs. Marc Edwards (Virginia Tech), Shawn McElmurry (Wayne State), Amy Pruden (Virginia Tech), David Reckhow (UMass-Amherst)

Watch the Press Conference in Flint:

Download a copy of the slides:

Download (PDF, 1.7MB)

Pictures from additional sampling for Disinfection By-Products and Lead by UMass-Amherst and Virginia Tech:

Some Perspectives On Rashes And Health Problems From Bathing Or Showering; Whether you are in Flint MI Or Elsewhere In The USA

We have examined questions of rashes and breathing difficulties that potentially arise from showering in municipal tap water since 2002 when we first responded to reports of such problems afflicting residents in Maui, HI. In Maui, our team worked with a local medical doctor to demonstrate that the water did not have adequate levels of disinfectant and had high concentrations of a certain bacteria called P. aeruginosa, which is known to cause “hot tub rashes.” That bacteria was then identified within some consumers’ rashes.  The incidence of rashes decreased when changes to water treatment were made that removed nutrients from the water and increased chlorine.

Unfortunately, ever since that modest success story, we have not made much progress in understanding this issue, except to say that whatever causes the problem(s) seems to be very complicated.

The people in Flint MI began questioning the safety of bathing when the Flint River was in use, but this still remains a large concern of many citizens there even after switching back to Detroit water. Below we share our experiences and opinions to date with specific discussion relative to residents in Flint, MI.  The Q+A is also based on my experiences with my own daughter Ailene Edwards (now 14 years old), who had very serious rashes exacerbated by bathing when she was younger.

What causes rashes and breathing difficulties — possibly due to showering or bathing tap water exposures?

Over the years, I have personally seen and fielded complaints from consumers all over the country who believed that bathing and showering was either causing or exacerbating health problems including rashes and breathing problems. These complaints have come from systems served by private wells, as well as municipal systems using chloramine and chlorine. As a general rule, when these problems arise, they only affect a sub-set of the population. This suggests that site specific factors (e.g., water heater temperature or presence of a particular type of pipe in a neighborhood), genetics or other environmental factors play a role. In our family, Ailene was the only one who had severe problems.  Even in the Maui case study, where we believe it is highly likely that the water was causing rashes, “only” about 5-10% of the population was impacted. Although this incidence may “seem” low, the symptoms can be quite severe for the individual afflicted and caregivers (in my case, as a parent) can feel a lot of guilt trying to prevent pain and suffering.

Am I crazy to think that water might sometimes be causing breathing problems or rashes?

No. I am with you on this.

What can I do to stop the problems? 

As difficult as it is, you should experiment with sponge baths using distilled or deionized water, to see if that reduces the problems.  If so, you have a possible solution. My daughter eventually grew out of the rash problem that was caused by bathing in our well water.  Please note that our well water comes from a Jefferson National Forest aquifer and had no added chlorine or chloramine, so the fact that a given water causes a problem does not necessarily mean the water is contaminated or otherwise dangerous.

What can the water utility and EPA do to stop the problems?

The utility has to meet federal standards for water that makes it suitable for the majority of customers in terms of drinking, bathing, and showering.  Immunocompromised individuals (people with weakened immune systems) are always at elevated risk from harmful water exposures whether it is due to Cryptosporidium, Legionella, or other contaminants.  Disinfection by-product exposures in homes are controlled by measurements taken in the water distribution system—those measurements are designed to reduce exposures occurring in the homes.

It’s important to understand that bathing is never completely a “risk free” activity.  However, the dangers of not bathing are also significant, and not bathing also poses health risks. Each individual needs to balance that risk given their own circumstance.

What about bathing and showering in Flint MI?

Flint River Water.  When Flint River water was being used, federal standards for disinfection by-products (THMs) and bacteria were being exceeded. The treatment plant and the water distribution system were not being run in a satisfactory manner. Although Legionella is not currently regulated in homes, the levels of chlorine in the system were not sufficient to help control this problem, especially in large buildings (note: we have looked, and not yet found Legionella in smaller buildings in Flint).  Thus, health risks of bathing in Flint water were probably much higher than in other U.S. cities, until the switch back to Detroit water in October of 2015.

Detroit Water.  After the switch back to Detroit water, and subsequent close oversight of the system from the U.S EPA, FEMA and other outsiders, the system has been meeting U.S. standards for disinfection by-products and bacteria.  Chlorine residuals have improved dramatically .  Lead levels are still too high for drinking or using the water for cooking. However, you cannot breathe significant lead from water while showering or bathing, and it cannot pass through your skin into your blood at significant levels. Therefore, the risk of lead exposure during bathing is not concerning as long as children do not drink large quantities of bath water.

On the basis of my thorough review, there is currently no scientifically valid reason to believe that risks of bathing or showering in Flint are currently higher than in other U.S. cities.  We support the current U.S. EPA guidance that indicates bathing or showering in unfiltered Flint water is not riskier than in other cities. If you feel the water is harming yourself or your child, and are experiencing breathing difficulties or rashes that you think are due to the water, bathing or showering is certainly not recommended for the reasons mentioned above. We also understand that many consumers will not feel safe bathing or showering in Flint water, for a long time, due to a lack of trust in the water supply. 

Anecdotal Reports from Flint Residents

We have tracked what happened to rashes of a few families that left Flint.  In two cases discussed thus far, the consumers kept having the rashes weeks after they left Flint.  Their hypothesis is that whatever caused it, simply changing the water (i.e.,  by moving) is not getting rid of the problem. We point this out because the continuing problem of rashes in these residents, suggests that the current water may not necessarily be the source of the problem.

Will filters help Mitigate this Problem in Flint?

There is little reason to believe that purchasing and using expensive in-home filters will help reduce health problems including rashes or breathing problems.  Some “whole-house” filters with granular activated carbon actually increase problems with certain bacteria, including Legionella, because they can remove chlorine used to disinfect the water.  That said, if you feel that your in-home filter system is helping you personally, continue to use it. But in my experience, purchasing such systems has only a low likelihood of solving the rash and breathing problems.

The lead filters installed at the end of faucets will not remove chlorine from the home plumbing and are very unlikely to increase Legionella risks. While these filters are very effective at removing lead, there is very little reason to think that treating the water with these filters, will help reduce rashes or breathing problems.

Additional questions?

Feel free to e-mail us on  We will try to keep this list updated as we learn more.

Q&A: Dr. Marc Edwards

Results of March 2016 Legionella Sampling Event in Smaller Buildings in Flint

In March 2016, we sampled tap water from 5 homes and 6 small businesses in Flint, with ALL testing culture-negative for Legionella.  We used a standard culture-method often used by hospitals to determine if there is a risk of Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak.  This is good news.  We will be following up with another sampling this summer when the weather is warmer and there is more of a tendency of Legionella bacteria to grow.

We are also examining the water samples we have collected more closely using DNA-based methods.  The DNA methods may help us detect lower levels of Legionella that we couldn’t see with culture and also identify different kinds of Legionella, but the trade-off is that we will not be able to tell the difference between live and dead bacteria.  That is why the culture method is considered the standard for determining risk of getting Legionnaires’ Disease from tap water.

Using the best available science, the sampling we performed in March 2016 showed that if any living Legionella were present, their levels were low the day of testing. There is always some risk of Legionnaire’s Disease from tap water, but our current results from March suggest the risk was not concerning at any of our sample sites in Flint.  We will remain vigilant in our tracking and testing of this potential problem in Flint homes.

Results of Flint Resident Water Lead Sampling (March 2016)

In March 2016, 174 Flint residents (out of 269 who participated in the original August 2015 sampling of Flint water) re-sampled their homes for lead in drinking water.  The goal was to track possible improvements since the switch back to Detroit water in October 2015 and implementation of improved corrosion control (i.e., extra phosphate added beyond that present in Detroit water) starting December 2015. This work was coordinated by Virginia Tech and was funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). The following conclusions are based on a preliminary evaluation of this sampling event.

  1. Flint is Not Yet Meeting the 90%’ile Lead Action Level

On the basis of first draw lead levels of samples collected during March 2016, Flint water is still exceeding Federal standards as determined by the EPA 90%’ile action level of 15 ppb.  The 90%’ile lead level in the March 2016 sampling event was 23 ppb which is above the 15 ppb EPA 90%’ile action level. Because the pool of 174 homes sampled is random in terms of the home plumbing profile, and was not selected to include at least 50% homes with lead pipe as required by the EPA for Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) monitoring, our reported 90%’ile lead is probably lower than that which would be determined in an approved LCR sampling event.  Hence, in our opinion, Flint water is not yet meeting the action level. All Flint residents should continue to use bottled water, or Flint water passed through a lead filter, for cooking or drinking until further notice.

Our sampling also demonstrated that water lead throughout the Flint system is highly variable.  Thus, virtually all homes in Flint must be considered at risk, at the present time, for elevated lead in water, unless the homeowner is certain that there is no lead plumbing (i.e., lead service line, leaded brass, or lead solder) in the home.  This means that homes that may have tested very low for water lead in past sampling efforts, must be considered at risk for high lead in water—the advice to use bottled or filtered water, applies to all homes, regardless of past testing results.

  1. Lead Levels Are Lower Now Than in August 2015

On the whole lead in water levels are improving, as indicated by both lower levels of lead, as well as by percentage of water lead samples above 15 ppb.  For example, 90%’ile first draw lead dropped from 28.5 to 22.8 ppb in 2016 versus 2015. The percentage of first draw samples over 15 ppb, dropped from 19% down to 15% comparing 2015 to 2016. For water samples collected after ≈ 3 minutes of cumulative flushing, 90%’ile lead levels were cut in half comparing 2016 to 2015 (i.e., 7.1 ppb versus 3.1ppb).

Lead Results

  1. Iron Levels (and Red Water Complaints) Are Decreasing

The implementation of corrosion control also appears to be reducing iron levels in water.  This is evidenced by a reduced number of homes exceeding the EPA’s secondary iron standard of 0.3 mg/L (for discoloration and red water), which dropped from 7% down to 4% in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Iron Results

  1. To Speed Up Recovery of The System, Many Residents Will Need to Use More Water

We conducted a detailed investigation of water use in a few homes that had persistently high lead. This investigation revealed that many Flint residents are using very little water.  Two homes with persistent elevated lead problem, were only using 20-45% of the monthly volume considered typical for U.S. homes. Our discussions reveal that this low water use is because many residents are: 1) trying to reduce their water bills, 2) showering only once per week for up to 5 minutes to reduce the likelihood of rashes or exposure, and 3) using bottled water for baths, washing dishes and other uses.

The very low water use rates in some Flint homes, hinders recovery of the system due to the improved corrosion control. Less water use means that the orthophosphate and chlorine added to help improve the water quality and reduce lead and bacteria, are not flowing through the homes as much as is desired. Regular water use is needed to help clean out loose lead deposits and control biofilms within the pipes.  Moreover, occasionally drawing water at a high rate from a tap with unrestricted flow such as a roman bath spout, hose bib or mud sink, will help to achieve velocities inside pipes that are needed to scour deposits that contain lead and iron rust.

In the next few weeks, it is likely that the United State Environmental Protection Agency and/or the state, will recommend a flushing program for homes with input from Virginia Tech, to help with system recovery and pipe cleaning. If implemented, many problems with lead, discolored water and even certain problems associated with bacteria will be brought under control more quickly. Consumers who use very little water, are likely to have more persistent problems, than those who are using more water or who will follow the recommended flushing program.

*Disclaimer: Although the information in this document has been gathered with funding by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, it may not necessarily reflect the views of the EPA and no official endorsement of either the result or recommendations should be inferred.

Download the Press Conference PowerPoint:

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Press Release by Dr. Kelsey Pieper and Dr. Marc Edwards