Jeannie Purchase and Kathryn Little present their Flint Water Educational Outreach work from Spring Break ’17 at VT Engage Poster Showcase, win 1st prize

Read about the outreach work done by the Flint team where they reached 1000+ Flint kids during the 2017 Spring Break.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Citizen Scientists: Flint Water Educational Outreach — Jeannie and Katie’s poster (click on the poster for a high-res image)

 

Katie and Jeannie with their poster

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

Clean Water for St. Joseph, LA: A Victory in the Battle Against Infrastructure Inequality

Yesterday, the town of St. Joseph Louisiana—suffering from years without clean water or civilization as the rest of us know it, got an early Christmas present. The Governor of LA declared a state of water emergency. This follows in the footsteps of Flint and a USA Today series that exposed chronic problems associated with water infrastructure-inequality in rural American.

This small town with a per capita income of $9000, a declining population and a mayor under investigation for fiscal wrongdoing, has suffered through years of black or orange water, constant boil water alerts, school shutdowns for lack of clean water, multiple utility violations for failures to monitor and alert the public—and continued assurances that the water was “safe” (Figure 1). Residents have been fighting for years, but in the end, it took dogged persistence by locals and their advocates, media attention, and a little bit of independent water testing to bring clean water to these long-ignored residents.

Figure 1. Water tower in St. Joseph (Source: Wilma Subra). A typical bathtub in St. Joseph (Source: Porscha Fayard)

The final battle started in early 2016, when residents hopes for a White House petition to help obtain clean water, fell short because this town of fewer than 1200 people couldn’t muster the 100,000 required signatures. In March and April of 2016, our colleague Dr. Adrienne Katner of LSU Health Sciences Center sent water sampling kits to a few residents that were supplied by Flintwaterstudy.org. Dr. Katner found elevated levels of lead as high as 42 ppb. We have since presented on St. Joe’s water woes at national conferences (view or download powerpoint below).

Download (PDF, 2.77MB)

Thus empowered with information that there was a problem, citizens started to get some traction. Things started to really move when Janie Jones (President, Council on Policy & Social Impact) got engaged.  Janie coordinated a sampling event with Adrienne and Flintwaterstudy on September 29, 2016, looking for lead and Legionella.

 

Figure 2. Ms. Thelma Bradford shows Flintwaterstudy the water from her kitchen faucet. (Photo: William Rhoads and Joyce Zhu)

At that point, the state started investigating further, and they also found elevated lead and copper. Advocate pressure added fuel to the fire, and on Dec 16, 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the declaration, which stated:

“The Town of St. Joseph has experienced water problems for years due to the poorly maintained and deteriorating water distribution system. Frequent breaks in the water distribution system provide a potential health risk because of the drop in water pressure. Out of an abundance of caution, the Louisiana Department of Health recommends that residents use an alternative source of water for personal consumption, including making ice, brushing teeth or using it for food preparation and rinsing of foods.”

The residents have been promised potable water until long-term solutions can be found. Congrats to everyone who is helping residents of St. Joe to get clean water. Special thanks to Janie Jones (President, Council on Policy & Social Impact) who told Flintwaterstudy:

 “This is just the beginning for St. Joe residents—the hard work is all ahead of us. Let’s remember to keep people at the forefront.” 

Legendary activist and MacArthur Fellow Wilma Subra has also been engaged in this battle.

Below is a short Flintwaterstudy video interview of our colleague Dr. Katner (LSU), who risked her career and “crossed the imaginary line” to help expose, and correct, this environmental injustice in St. Joe.

 

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards