A-List Actor But F-List Scientist: Mark Ruffalo Brings Fear And Misinformation To Flint

Actor Mark Ruffalo (who once played a doctor in a movie) and his Water Defense team have been outspoken about current health dangers from bathing and showering in Flint water.  Two weeks ago, Ruffalo went on CNN to highlight the unique dangers of bathing in Flint, due to corroding pipes:

 “where the problem really lies…is not the EPA, nor the State of Michigan, nor Dr. Mona or Marc Edwards, can tell the people of Flint it is safe to bath in Flint water because there are no standards” …“we do not know where these disinfection by-products (DBPs) are coming from, are they coming from the corroded lead, or are they coming from galvanized iron pipes”

Ruffalo’s new claim, adds to a February press release of Water Defense “Chief Scientist” Scott Smith proclaiming “DANGEROUS CHEMICALS DISCOVERED IN BATHS/SHOWERS OF FLINT, MI.”  Exactly how Mr. Smith earned a title of “Chief Scientist” from Mr. Ruffalo is something of a mystery– he does not appear to have any scientific degree, nor has he played such a role in a movie.

The DANGEROUS CHEMICAL that Water Defense discovered and has been most concerned with?  Chloroform.  The same chemical that the EPA and water industry have been addressing for 40 years, and for which we now have standards via the total trihalomethane (TTHM) regulation. Chloroform is a TTHM found in tap water of every city using chlorine. When the TTHM regulation was established, the location and method of measurement was set in the cold water distribution system. By measuring at that location, and controlling the levels of TTHMs before they enter homes, consumers are protected after that same water flows to their baths and showers. Clearly, there are standards for chloroform and TTHMs, to protect public health of residents in Flint and the rest of the United States.  Those same regulations also reasonably control the concentration of other unregulated DBPs.

Water Defense has consistently presented their chloroform and DBP data, as if they have discovered something new, dangerous and unique to Flint residents. But I reviewed their data, and it is typical of a very good tap water, as is expected given that Flint has now switched back to Detroit water. As a further check I sent the Water Defense DBP results to Dr. David Reckhow at U-Mass Amherst, one of the foremost authorities on DBPs in the world.  While Dr. Reckhow has never played a doctor in a movie (and hence his informed opinion will probably not get broadcast on CNN) he stated: “There is nothing at all unusual or abnormal in the Flint DBP data.”

Ruffalo’s absurd hypothesis that DBPs in Flint could be coming from “corroded lead” or “galvanized iron,” defies basic laws of physics and chemistry. Indeed, we do know where DBPs come from—they do not come from corroded pipe.

Water Defense came to Flint after a Federal Emergency was declared, and has exploited the fears of traumatized Flint residents, whose unfortunate prior experience taught them to carefully listen to views of outsiders who question authority.  Flint residents can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but not everyone who challenges the claims of the EPA, CDC and State of Michigan are automatically correct. Since the declaration of the state of emergency in January, most of the bad actors that caused the Flint water crisis have been fired or resigned or indicted.  These agencies have since been going a very difficult job to the best of their abilities.

More than a month ago we became alarmed that Flint residents were taking the irresponsible and unscientific claims of Water Defense seriously.  Recall that this group also falsely stated that Flint residents could suffer health harm from drinking water with phosphate, or from breathing lead into their lungs from showers!  At that time we asked them in writing:

Are you and the rest of Water Defense, willing to accept liability, for any health harm that arises if people not currently affected by rashes and other ailments, stop bathing? 

Water Defense refused to respond to this question, but they have backtracked, and now state that:

Water Defense would never say that Flint water is unsafe for bathing or showering, we are just saying we do not know.

Excuse me?  Isn’t this akin to standing up and screaming “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre—then, after watching panicked people stampede to the exits and getting hurt, claiming that “FIRE!” really meant “I DO NOT KNOW IF THERE IS A FIRE!.”

Amidst the heightened fears of water safety in Flint and the State of Michigan, there has now been a spike in gastrointestinal illness predominantly among school age children—the most common cause for this problem, by far, is a lack of proper bathing, showering and hand washing. Clearly, false and unsubstantiated claims about water safety, can hurt innocent people, just like shouting “Fire” in a crowded movie theatre. Mr. Ruffalo and Water Defense should be ashamed of themselves. Flint residents currently need funding and moral support—not pseudoscience and false alarms.

Question:  If Water Defense tells me that I found 200 ppb chloroform in my shower, does that mean I am over the EPA standard of 80 ppb?

One disturbing means by which Water Defense implies that Flint water is dangerous, is by conducting testing using a non-standard methodology and location, and implying that if a result greater than 80 ppb is achieved the water is dangerous according to EPA standards.  This is a common refrain of some consumers who have been given Water Defense results.

Put simply, a 200 ppb test value from Water Defense is over the 80 ppb EPA standard, and the water is proven dangerous right?  Wrong.

When an EPA regulation is set for safety, the location of the measurement and the method of the measurement is also specified. To compare a water to the standard, you need to sample according to the regulation.

The proprietary “Water Bug” sponge sampling technology pushed by Water Defense, has little or nothing to do with the EPA approved method.  It could give results 2, 5, 10 or even 100 times higher than the EPA standard, and it would say nothing at all about the regulated safety of Flint water.

Water Defense numbers cannot be compared to the EPA standard.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Note: This article has been modified to include a question from a Flint resident.