Del Toral’s Heroic Effort Was Ultimately Vetted in the Blood Lead of Flint’s Children

Excellent articles by Arthur Delaney at Huffington Post and Jim Lynch at the Detroit News shed light on delays in the Federal government’s response to the Flint water crisis.

EPA Region 5 Director Susan Hedman’s now explains that from April to November 2015, EPA was actively seeking a “legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action” at MDEQ to implement corrosion control. Hedman also correctly stated that:

Communication about lead in drinking water and the health impacts associated with that, that’s the role of DHHS, the county health department and the drinking water utility.

But what if MDEQ was refusing to do their job, as Hedman now acknowledges?

At what point did EPA notify the country health department, regarding its opinion that MDEQ was not following Federal law, so they could make an informed decision about communicating risks to the public about the health impacts of high lead in their drinking water?

More importantly, why should Flint’s children be allowed to drink lead contaminated water, unprotected by Federal law, while EPA and MDEQ spend months politely wrangling over jurisdiction, technicalities and legalities?

Our FOIA revealed that in early July, Hedman actually apologized to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling for Miguel Del Toral’s memo detailing the imminent peril of Flint’s children, and further said that:

When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.

EPA also silenced Del Toral, and stood by as outsiders in communication with Hedman publicly discredited him. On September 8th 2015 Mayor Dayne Walling commented on the Del Toral letter:

“Walling said Weaver is making a mistake by citing a letter from “one individual staff person” who does not speak for U.S. EPA. “It’s dangerous for a candidate to make allegations that are not based on fact,” Walling said.

As late as September 29th 2015, MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel told NPR that:

“…the report was the work of a “rogue employee” and promised the final report — not yet released — would tell a much different story”

Regarding the above public attack by MDEQ Hedman stated to Huffpost that:

…. the Department of Environmental Quality apologized to him <Del Toral> for the “rogue” characterization. She emphasized that Del Toral is part of the team. “He is one of the top experts in the world on lead and copper in drinking water and a key member of EPA’s Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force,”

Where and when did this MDEQ apology happen? Behind closed doors?

How did that private apology in late September, help shape public perceptions of the problem, or for that matter help the county health department or even Flint’s Mayor exercise their role to protect Flint’s children?

The disconnect between Hedman’s bureaucratic approach, and her agencies moral obligation to protect the public welfare, is perhaps best exemplified by events in early July immediately after Walling and Hedman first discussed the Del Toral memo. Specifically, Walling has been publicly excoriated for his July 9th appearance on local television drinking Flint water to demonstrate its complete safety.

Immediately after reading our e-mails FOIA’d between MDEQ and EPA, Walling <under>stated:

The federal EPA needed to be more aggressive with the DEQ…The emails show these concerns were being raised by experts, but they weren’t” being shared with the city.

When was Flint Mayor Dayne Walling finally informed by EPA that Del Toral and his memo were credible? In early October 2015. By that point, the validity of the Del Toral memo had been fully vetted in the rising blood lead of Flint’s children. EPA’s long awaited legal analysis was finally released in early November 2015-it essentially exonerated MDEQ.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Our sampling of 252 homes demonstrates a high lead in water risk: Flint should be failing to meet the EPA Lead and Copper Rule

Over the weekend, we analyzed all samples shipped to Virginia Tech from Flint to date. Flint residents have already returned an astonishing 84% of the sample kits we sent out (252 out of 300 samples). We will continue to analyze water samples as they are returned. However, mathematically, even if the remaining 48 samples returned have non-detectable lead, our conclusion will not change — FLINT HAS A VERY SERIOUS LEAD IN WATER PROBLEM.

Forty percent (40.1%) of the first draw samples are over 5 parts per billion (ppb). That is, 101 out of 252 water samples from Flint homes had first draw lead more than 5 ppb. Even more worrisome, given that we could not target “worst case” homes with lead plumbing that are required for EPA sampling, Flint’s 90%’ile lead value is 25 ppb in our survey. This is over the EPA allowed level of 15 ppb that is applied to high risk homes. This is a serious concern indeed. Several samples exceeded 100 ppb, and one sample collected after 45 seconds of flushing exceeded 1000 ppb.

We now advise Flint consumers to heed EPA information that advises consumers on how to avoid adverse health effects from exposure to excessive lead in drinking water. The main concern is related to water used for drinking or cooking. With the exception of one home that we sampled which had astronomical levels of lead, the levels of lead detected in Flint were safe for bathing, showering, toilet flushing and watering lawns/gardens.

Until further notice, we recommend that Flint tap water only be used for cooking or drinking if one of the following steps are implemented:

  • Treat Flint tap water with a filter certified to remove lead (look for certification by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) that it removed lead on the label), or
  • Flush your lines continuously at the kitchen tap, for 5 minutes at a high flow rate (i.e. open your faucet all the way), to clean most of the lead out of your pipes and the lead service line, before collecting a volume of water for cooking or drinking. Please note that the water needs to be flushed 5 minutes every time before you collect water for cooking or drinking. For convenience, you can store water in the refrigerator in containers, to reduce the need to wait for potable water each time you need it.

We do not issue this warning lightly, and note that our concern is based on several lines of evidence. First, scientifically, we predicted based on past research that the Flint River water chemistry would create a serious lead in water problem. Second, we confirmed the very high corrosivity of the Flint River water for lead in our laboratory testing at Virginia Tech. Third, for some reason that no one has yet explained to us, the Flint River water was introduced into the pipe distribution system without any measures (or even a plan) to reduce its corrosivity. We are therefore very perplexed by recent MDEQ assertions that the situation in Flint is normal. Finally, we have the results of our survey of 252 homes conducted with the assistance of Flint consumers. Because of the very serious and permanent health damage that arises from lead exposure, we feel that this problem requires immediate public health warnings and intervention– we provide that for Flint consumers in this report.

Another mystery that must be examined very carefully in the days and weeks ahead: How is it possible, that Flint “passed” the official EPA Lead and Copper Rule sampling overseen by MDEQ? In our experience, following the EPA site selection criteria targeting homes with the highest risk for lead, the MDEQ sampling should have found much worse results than our sampling. Instead, MDEQ is asserting that the lead levels in Flint are much lower. Hence, we call on the U.S. EPA and others, to conduct a detailed audit of the 2014 and 2015 LCR sampling round overseen by MDEQ in Flint, to determine if it was conducted consistent with requirements of the law.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Samples Analysis: Dr. Jeffrey Parks, Anurag Mantha

Acknowledgements: Siddhartha Roy