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.

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

  1. Mr. Ruffalo would be wise to read this statement objectively and thoroughly.
    It would be most beneficial to the citizens of Flint if everyone contributing to the relief effort are fully informed and working together.

  2. I appreciate all that you have and are doing to help us here in Flint. I understand your frustration over someone scaring us into thinking it’s not safe to bathe or shower, but these rashes and sores aren’t being made up, they are real. I got sores on my scalp after showering before I purchased a shower filter. Would it not be better to be cautious and say you don’t know, than to say it is safe? In your blog you said ” 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. “…… This spike in gastrointestinal illness is not limited to Flint. Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., reported at least 174 students are ill with an outbreak of a gastrointestinal ailment that causes prolonged bouts of vomiting. The Ingham County Health Department is investigating an outbreak of more than 120 cases of gastrointestinal illness at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center. MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – Public Health – Muskegon County officials said the agency has received an increasing number of gastrointestinal illness reports, some of which have been confirmed as norovirus.
    Last week, there were 464 reports of gastrointestinal illnesses from Muskegon County schools and daycare facilities, according to data kept by Public Health – Muskegon County. The CDC is monitoring the situation aboard the Disney Wonder. At the time of publication, the CDC reports 92 of 2679 (3.43%) passengers and 5 of 991 (0.5%) crew members have reported being ill during the voyage. The predominant symptom is vomiting and the suspected reason is norovirus…..There are even cases in Boston. It’s not just Genesee County noticing a spike or even just Flint.
    I’m not trying to disrespect you but I don’t believe it is fair to make us believe that the gastrointestinal illness is caused by not bathing. “It is common at this time of year for gastrointestinal illnesses (GI), such as Norovirus, more commonly known as the stomach bug, to be circulating in the community, particularly in institutions like schools, colleges and long-term care facilities where people are living in close quarters,” said the MCHD.

    • Norovirus outbreaks are common could indeed be the culprit but in reality, both viewpoints are valid and, actually complementary. The fact that Norovirus infections are being seen all over the U.S. doesn’t negate the fact that many of the cases (in Flint and elsewhere) could be caused by poor hand washing practices. And in the case of Flint, compounded by people who are afraid to use their water to wash or bathe. Basic hygiene (i.e., frequent and thorough hand washing) is still one of the best defenses against these types of infections!

      The CDC clearly states that to prevent Norovirus infection, you need to: “Wash your hands carefully with soap and water— especially after using the toilet and changing diapers, and always before eating, preparing, or handling food.” and that “The virus can stay in your stool for 2 weeks or more after you feel better. So, it is important to continue washing your hands often during this time..”

      However, if people are afraid to use the water to wash their hands because someone told them that the water’s not safe for bathing or showering (and by extension or assumption, not safe to wash their hands) then there’s an increased risk of infection.

  3. I want to believe that Water Defense’s intentions are good …. but they need to understand that they are causing confusion among people who don’t know what or who to believe. The affected residents distrustful (rightfully so) and susceptible to people who are offering an alternative solution/explanation.

    Journalists are not helping the matter either. For example… a prominent article (link below) generated countless emails to me about where they can find “handheld lead tester”… (Being a former ICP-MS Jockey… I had no idea what they were talking about)… only to learn that the Huffington Post was reporting the readout from a $10 TDS probe as dissolved lead concentration. It’s not easy to explain to a hopeful person that the Huffington Post is wrong.


    Keep up the fight Dr. Edwards. Good information and Solid Science need to win out here.

  4. This is a fantastic response to the non-sense pseudo-science propagating fear in Flint. Thank you for taking the time to write this, Dr Edwards.

  5. I love Mark Ruffalo, but out of Townes don’t know. The whole story and unless he goes to Flint and lives there for awhile maybe he should not weigh in!

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