Highlights of a Typical Week of “Citizen Engineering” in Flint

Despite State of Michigan monitoring data indicating that Flint has been meeting Federal Lead Action Levels for nearly 2 years, and other independent data supporting that official result — a mantra that Flint water is still too dangerous for drinking (even after lead filters) or bathing continues unabated from some quarters. For outsiders perplexed by the irreconcilable discrepancy between what the scientific data shows versus claims of the “citizen engineers” who want to disrupt expertise/communities, we herein outline  a typical week of misinformation flowing from some of the usual suspects: Dr. Laura Sullivan (FACHEP/Kettering), Activist Melissa Mays (Campaign for Lead Free Water) and Jordan Chariton (Independent political reporter).

June 26, 2018

Jordan Chariton releases a video, claiming he will soon expose massive cheating by the State of Michigan on water lead sampling.  He further asserts that the State of Michigan is perpetrating “ethnic cleansing” in Flint. Excerpts:

Dr. Laura Sullivan (FACHEP) emails a large group of scientists, expressing concerns that water treated by lead filters in Flint schools is not safe for children. Dr. Sue Masten (FACHEP) and George Krisztian (MDEQ) point out that  the data she was citing came from unfiltered water, and it was collected more than 2 years ago before lead fixtures had been replaced throughout the schools – in fact, all of the filtered water samples collected from the schools had undetectable levels of lead. This is just the latest example in which Dr. Sullivan looks at good monitoring data, and somehow fools herself into thinking it is really bad—at least this time she did not publicly state a conspiracy theory that that the State of MI and the media have something to hide, and do not care about children.

June 28, 2018

A Flint resident posts a photo of a hydrant spewing discolored water with a statement “Taken yesterday in Flint MI.”  Another person comments “This is what deregulation looks like,” to which Melissa Mays states “ABSOLUTELY.  And Legal Genocide.”

Mays then takes the photo, and makes a new posting with the text “Is this photo from 2015? Nope. Yesterday. But “experts” tell us our water is “restored” and “normal.” REALLY? Drink up, then.” This photo and caption goes viral and is shared by Dr. Sullivan and Jordan Chariton.

June 29, 2018

FlintWaterStudy shows that the photo supposedly taken June 27th, 2018, was actually from 2015. Mays disputes our irrefutable evidence, and repeatedly asserts the photo was actually taken on June 27, 2018. The location of the hydrant is stated to be Martin Luther King and Flint Parkway.

Perplexed by Mays’ continued insistence that the photo was from 2018, Flint resident Keri Webber goes on a quest to try and find the hydrant that was supposedly spewing the horrible water reflecting “legal genocide.”  A summary of her Facebook live posts that day, affirm the position of FlintWaterStudy that the photo was actually from 2015. Flint resident Florlisa Fowler also confirms the photo is from 2015.

Melissa Mays continues to post “Here is yet ANOTHER example of Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards and @flintwaterstudy taking it upon themselves to attack poisoned Flint residents and call them liars.”  She later writes “Share your photos and your stories because YOUR TRUTH MATTERS.”

Jordan Chariton posts a #FlintWaterCrisis UPDATE, asserting that “a resident who I will not name” was  “rushed to the hospital and doctors found that he or she had a 48.5 parts per billion blood lead level.” And that “Once the doctor found his or her blood lead level to be the astronomical 48 parts per billion, he told him or her to STOP SHOWERING. So did POISON CONTROL. Why is that important? Because experts (and I use that term loosely) like Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards have been UNWAVERING for years in dismissing Flint residents’ complaints about getting sick from their SHOWER water, claiming you can not get lead poisoning from shower water….. When will the media start covering this again as the CRISIS it is?”

July 3rd, 2018

Dr. Sullivan removed the original posting claimed to be in 2018, and proven to be from 2015, but says “I am not apologizing for using the photo in error, because I’m still not certain of the date on which the photo was taken. I’m apologizing for not waiting to post until I’d determined the photo’s authenticity.”

Melissa Mays posts on Facebook that “Arsenic has been detected in my water….” She further posts that her doctor told her “transdermal absorption of lead is an issue,” and provides a written citation from a reference supposedly supporting that.

We fielded calls from those who read Mays posts and were worried about drinking arsenic contaminated water and getting lead exposure through the skin.  It turns out that her reference also states that “absorption of inorganic lead is minimal” through skin—and since lead in Flint water is 100% inorganic residents need not worry about absorption afterall. Consistent with what the authorities have been saying all along.

For those who were worried about May’s report of arsenic, we looked back at over 2,800 potable water samples collected during our sampling events in Flint since 2015. The highest was 3.9 ppb measured at the tap, where higher arsenic is to be expected because it is used in brass. The Federal standard of 10 ppb is measured at the treatment plant, and we always found undetectable arsenic in those samples. The average arsenic of 0.8 ppb in taps from Flint homes is lower than the typical U.S. water supply (Frey and Edwards, 1993).

Prologue:  July 4th and 5th, 2018

The exact same photo of the hydrant spewing discolored water taken in 2015, was reposted with the text “Flint still does not have safe water 7/4/2018.” A resident has retweeted the post and Melissa Mays “liked” it:

Once again Keri Webber goes back into the field to confirm that the photo is NOT from 2018, but the photo is reposted multiple times anyway.

Final Comments

The on-going battle between “citizen science” versus “citizen engineering” in post-Federal Emergency Flint continues, raising questions that should haunt all Americans. Do facts matter anymore? Are all “Truths” really equal? And if the tactics of the science anarchists operating in Flint, successfully undermine expertise and disrupt the community, spreading fear, hate and social anarchy-what then?

Flint still has very real problems, including a water infrastructure financial crisis, that gave rise to the Flint Water Crisis in the first place. The on-going conspiracy theories, misinformation and fearmongering, make it virtually impossible to constructively address those problems.

Primary Authors and Research: Drs. Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy

Is this Flint photo from 2015?

We came across a social media post from yesterday that has been shared over 4,700 times showing red/orange water being flushed from a fire hydrant in Flint with this quote:

“Is this photo from 2015? Nope. Yesterday. But “experts” tell us our water is “restored” and “normal.” REALLY? Drink up, then.

It reached, and clearly angered, a lot of people.

Where was this photo taken on Jun 27, 2018?

Is there a scientific explanation as to why the water was like this on Jun 27, 2018?

Wow. That is pretty bad. Citizen engineers are courageously helping us understand the Flint 2018 “disaster” being “[swept] under the rug.”

The problem? The cover photo of the Facebook group page “Flint Water Class Action Group” from during the crisis in Sep 2015:

What if we put them side-by-side?

We will let you judge for yourself if this photo was taken yesterday.

Primary authors: Drs. Siddhartha Roy and Marc Edwards

Citizen Engineering comes to Flint — Disrupting Communities by Undermining Engineering Expertise

Flintwaterstudy was launched in August 2015 with the following goals and principles:

We have worked hard to stay true to our goals, and also play a role as an honest broker of scientific information and analysis for all parties. It has not been easy.

Early on we put our professional careers and reputations on the line, by attacking unethical and unscientific statements made by powerful government agencies (e.g., MDEQ, MDEQ again, US EPA, US EPA again, US EPA, MDHHS, MDHHS again, City of Flint, City of Flint again). We spent thousands of hours (and dollars) on Freedom of Information Act requests — releasing the documents with an analysis online for everyone to see and all media to use. We publicly supported valid scientific claims made by Flint residents that were being unjustly ignored, and we spoke out on behalf of silenced EPA Whistleblower Miguel Del Toral. We released our data and associated information on water lead (see full data sets from 2015 and 2015-17) and legionella (see also here and here) transparently and in near real-time, exposing the problem of elevated lead in water and the high levels of Legionella in large buildings. We paid for most of it out of our own pocket, and were proud to be part of a “critical mass of moral courage” that exposed what is now acknowledged world-wide as an environmental injustice.

In late 2015 the maligned agencies began an escalating public health response and relief effort. It started with a lead advisorycity water emergency and then culminated in President Obama declaring a Federal Emergency. At that point hundreds of millions of dollars were mobilized to help Flint recover. The agencies that caused the crisis admitted fault, many civil servants were indicted or resigned, and the vast majority of employees in those agencies who are ethical honest professionals were newly empowered to do their jobs—Miguel Del Toral was even given a leadership oversight role in EPA. We have been guided by the principle that “If you want to be part of the solution, we will work with and defend you, but if you are part of the problem we are going to call you out.” Since the Federal Emergency we observed great relief work by all parties, we were proud to work alongside them and report their progress firsthand (e.g. see here and here).

But as anyone following Flintwaterstudy or the Flint Water Crisis knows, unfortunately, the hundreds of millions of dollars and all the lawsuits and media attention, brought something else to Flint.  We have documented how numerous unethical opportunists (see here, here, here, and here) descended on the city starting in late 2015, to exploit the tragedy to their own advantage. The media spotlight and the possible large financial rewards also played a powerful corrupting role. Unfortunately, when bad science was deployed by these groups in a manner that could compromise public health, they became “part of the problem” and we made the difficult decision to call them out. This was particularly painful in some cases, because some of those formerly allied with us in exposing the agency corruption and misconduct during the water crisis, have remained in full-blown and full-time attack mode even after the Federal Emergency—a few of these individuals have now become dedicated adversaries of Flintwaterstudy and Dr. Marc Edwards.

Citizen Science versus Citizen Engineering

One untold story unfolding behind the scenes, feeding the growing controversy, is a clash of cultures and philosophy from within academia. On one side are the proponents of “Citizen Science,” which is exemplified by the scientific collaboration between Flint residents, Flint Water Study and others, that first exposed the water crisis in August-September 2015. Citizen scientists are dedicated to truth-seeking and truth-speaking, working in collaboration with trained scientists, in order to learn about their environment and the world around them. An exemplar from the water crisis is Flint, is resident LeeAnne Walters, who recently won the internationally recognized Goldman Environmental Prize for her grass roots activism.

On the other side are followers and practitioners of an emerging philosophy of “Citizen Engineering,” first defined by Purdue University Dean Dr. Donna Riley and effectively put into practice in Flint by her colleague Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou. Citizen engineering involves a process by which:

“community members (“non-experts”) identify scientific questions …sometimes but not always with the cooperation of trained scientists,” with “…the disruption of engineering expertise is a central goal….”

This goal of disrupting engineering expertise complements Dr. Riley and colleagues plea to get rid of the concept of “rigor” entirely in science and engineering to uphold “social justice” and eliminate “the profession’s tendency to marginalize, ignore, silence,…<l>ocal knowledges and scientific counter-knowledges that depart from dominant paradigms of engineering thought and practice.”

Whatever you think about the two clashing philosophies, obviously, any effort by experts such as Flintwaterstudy, to call out possible misuse of science by non-experts, is destined to create a major conflict and hard feelings.  Such was the case in post-Federal Emergency Flint.  Examples of our work in this area include the following:

We stand by our scientific reporting of these and many other issues. But as a result of the above we have been attacked repeatedly by Dr. Riley, Dr. Lambrinidou and Dr. Laura Sullivan (FACHEP) in social media, closed presentations and at conferences—they refuse all attempts to engage in responsible professional conversation about these and other issues. This is particularly painful because as recently as 2012, Dr. Lambrinidou was as equally outspoken advocate of Dr. Edwards’ research, public engagement, ethics and moral leadership, as exemplified by letters nominating him for some of the same types of recognition that she now decries.


The long-running unprofessional social media attacks and rumors, recently escalated with a letter writing campaign by some Flint residents (now with the public support of Dr. Lambrinidou and Dr. Laura Sullivan of FACHEP) and launch of a website Flintcomplaints.com. We welcome the chance to finally address these unprofessional attacks directly and publicly. Below we respond, point by point, to all specific claims in the Flintcomplaints.com letter.

1. Violation of Principle #3 of the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing: “Let People Speak for Themselves” (https://www.ejnet.org/ej/jemez.pdf): In March 2018, Mr. Edwards filed a formal complaint against Professor Shawn McElmurry and FACHEP (Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership). This complaint does nothing to help the residents of Flint move toward recovery in the Water Crisis. In fact, it has caused more strife, stress and drama that we do not need, want or deserve… Michigan and Flint residents have their own voice and have never asked Mr. Edwards to speak for us, let alone take official action using our names instead of his own.

Response:We stand by the accuracy of our blog post raising legitimate questions about Dr. McElmurry claims that he worked “in Flint” from 2010-2015 and developed a hydraulic model of the Flint Water system. We further note that Dr. McElmurry and Wayne State have not yet given a direct response to this important question. We have raised additional concerns about this issue by citing Dr. McElmurry’s statements made under oath. We do not agree that our raising these points violates any democratic principle. To our knowledge, Dr. Edwards has never once claimed that he represents “the people of Flint” in relation to these complaints —  moreover Dr. Edwards clearly signed the complaints in his own name.

2. Obstruction of Flint’s right for self-determination. …Many residents now fear the possibility that Mr. Edwards’ glib, reckless, and egotistical conduct may hamper the ongoing criminal investigation into the Legionnaires deaths in our city, which we see as the only form of justice we might achieve (http://michiganradio.org/post/scientific-disagreements-could-affect-special-prosecutor-s-case-flint-water-crisis.) This additional and totally undeserved worry suddenly adds to the stress and chaos we already feel.

Response:  The only specific item mentioned in Point 2, is again related to our specific allegations about Dr. McElmurry, as represented in the Michigan Radio report. We agree that it will be unfortunate for everyone, if Dr. McElmurry’s past representations of his qualifications and his statements made under oath are indeed false—but doesn’t Dr. McElmurry himself bear responsibility for those statements? We also find it remarkable that none of the signatories of the letter, seem to have any problem, with the prospect that Dr. McElmurry made false statements to win millions in research for which he was unqualified, or stole the research ideas of a young assistant professor. 

3. Unsubstantiated defamation of Flint residents: Mr. Edwards’ portrayal of Flint residents as dumb, dirty and vulnerable to being misled by anyone other than himself started in early 2016, is ongoing, and is misguided and offensive…. The allegation that FACHEP announced that they found shigella in Flint water is a lie… In May 2016, Mr. Edwards erroneously accused Scott Smith and Water Defense of scaring residents out of bathing (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/31/flint-lead-tainted-water-crisis-michigan-safe-to-use). Mr. Edwards also accused Dr. Laura Sullivan and Mr. McElmurry of FACHEP of causing Flint residents to stop bathing because their research scared us (according to some reports, Mr. Edwards made the preposterous claim that as many as 80% of us returned to a state of filth). This is insulting and false. It is also blatantly unscientific because Mr. Edwards did not bother to ask actual Flint residents about our bathing habits before coming up with this pronouncement.

Response: In response to the complaint we sent a polite letter to the email address provided to us on May 23rd  and May 24th. We pointed out that the source of our citation that 80% of Flint residents had changed their bathing habits was a U.S. Centers for Disease Control study—and we provided the authors a specific reference to that report. We also provide Facebook postings in which Dr. Laura Sullivan claimed that to avoid Shigella, her Wayne State and University of Michigan (FACHEP) colleagues had told her to boil filtered water before bathing. We also quoted a Flint resident who recently asserted “We have shigella because we wash our hands.” None of the insulting comments stated above, were ever made by Dr. Edwards. If he had done so, he would sign the flintcomplaint letter himself. As for Scott Smith data being used to scare residents about bathing, we think the title of the youtube video (“Scott Smith from Water Defense-Bathing in Flint is NOT SAFE.”) posted by Melissa Mays April 11, 2016 speaks for itself, but there are many other examples.Despite our polite letter mailed May 23 and May 24, we have received no response, yet these obviously false claims are now repeated on the flintcomplaints.com website. It therefore, seems that the website and letter are intended to deliberately defame Dr. Edwards, as opposed to exposing Dr. Edwards alleged defamation of Flint residents.

4. To our knowledge, there is no one in the scientific community overseeing Mr. Edwards’ work or the way he uses his power over powerless residents. As far as we know there is no one in the scientific community ensuring the integrity and honesty of Mr. Edwards’ words, research and activism. Mr. Edwards has repeatedly spoken and written about how there are no bacteria or dangerous pathogens in Flint residents’ water, even though he is not a microbiologist nor is he doing mass testing within our homes. Also, Mr. Edwards has assured Flint residents that it is safe to bathe in unfiltered water even though he has not done widespread testing of hot shower water and he is not a physician, dermatologist or toxicologist.

Response: The claim that unfiltered Flint water is safe for bathing, is the official position of all relevant public health authorities. The agencies position is supported by Flintwaterstudy’s extensive independent monitoring data for pathogenic and other bacteria that goes back to August 2015—our data supports the position of the agencies.  As indicated in the polite response we made to the authors of the letter on May 23 and 24, we asked them to produce a shred of evidence that Edwards repeatedly claimed “there are no bacteria or dangerous pathogens in Flint residents’ water.” For the record, Dr. Edwards has never made such a statement. He has repeatedly stated that all water in the U.S. has some levels of dangerous bacteria, and that there is no such thing as a risk free shower or bath in any U.S. city. Like the public health agencies, he has asserted that all the available data, indicate that Flint water is now as safe as other cities with old water pipes. The authors of the letter never responded with any evidence that he made such claims about “no bacteria,” which again, illustrates a deliberate attempt to defame Dr. Edwards by people who obviously know better.

As for the question of oversight, we wonder aloud:  “Who is examining the honesty and integrity of the words and actions of Dr. Riley, Dr. Lambrinidou, Dr. Sullivan and Dr. McElmurry?” And, “Who will correct the many false claims made in the Flintcomplaint letter, as detailed herein, sent to numerous professional engineering organizations, and now to the world? Afterall, it is their Citizen Engineering that has the explicitly stated goal of disrupting expertise and communities, and in Flint, they have been partly successful.

Response to original letter on May 23-24:

Download (PDF, 178KB)

Responses: Dr. Marc Edwards

Acknowledgements: Dr. Siddhartha Roy

Another Set of Independent Lead and Copper Rule Testing Results for Flint, MI

90%’ile = 3.9 ppb in Flint Tier 1 homes.

Dr. Susan Masten (Michigan State University) has published results of independent testing in Flint, MI for a 7-month period starting August 28 2017.  The 90%’ile lead is 3.9 ppb, for Tier 1 homes, completely consistent with official LCR data from the State of Michigan and our own Flintwaterstudy citizen science sampling in 2017-2018. Read her report below:

Download (PDF, 593KB)