Citizen Science in Flint: Triumph, Tragedy and Now Misconduct?

The story of how a coalition led by concerned residents, activists, whistleblowers and others (including worked to expose the Flint water crisis, has become an epic case study illustrating the power of citizen science and ethical science action. But we have also uncovered examples in which citizen science has been abused, to harm people and promote false narratives.

Citizen Science Tragedy.

After the Federal Emergency was declared and the responsible agencies admitted there was a problem and began working together to fix it, opportunists came to Flint in droves. In early 2016 we called out one abuse—businessmen who were claiming to be scientists, asserting unprecedented dangers with bacteria and chloroform and other contaminants that were an artifact of their flawed proprietary sampling methods. We later demonstrated they had a clear financial conflict of interest, as evidenced by attempts to recommend overpriced filters to Flint residents, many of whom understandably live in fear of tap water.

The pseudo-scientists and unscrupulous activists, found a willing accomplice with “journalists” at The Young Turks Network, who also came to Flint after the federal emergency was declared, seemingly intent on undermining any remaining trust residents have– long after the government wrongdoing had been exposed and acknowledged. In a remarkable video posting last week, TYT’s Jordan Chariton revealed his approach and journalistic standards, when he stated “ be honest with you, I do not understand why journalists are so worried about being wrong.  […] if you make assertions and it is found out later you were incorrect, there is nothing wrong with saying…..I was wrong.” Is making assertions “based on [your] intuitions” consistent with the first ethical canon of journalism “to seek truth and report it”? 

We also witnessed, an unfortunate case where a Flint citizen deliberately used improper water lead sampling methods, that made lead in their water appear much higher than it otherwise would have been. Even after we had a conversation acknowledging this lead result was not valid, it was shared with the press, to support a narrative that Flint’s water quality was getting worse and worse– despite massive relief efforts and expenditure of millions and millions of dollars to improve the situation.

Citizen Science Misconduct?

We herein document the case of another Flint resident, who has been broadcasting data showing that their water lead test data was also getting much worse with time.

Note: If you cannot see the interactive graph above, click here for an image. Only lead levels shared on NBC25 and the resident’s Facebook posts (privacy settings: public) have been included. As a further check, several of these were confirmed with available Residential testing Excel sheets from MDEQ.

This story has now been featured in numerous media (ABC12, Detroit Free Press, NBC25, TYT, other outlets), because this resident’s water lead level climbed to thousands of ppb this summer. As in the earlier case, it was a scientific mystery as to how this could happen without having any lead pipe to the home — the publicly stated implication was that water coming from the City of Flint was already contaminated with lead from the water main. This resident also posted data showing very high blood lead, and claimed their lead exposure probably occurred in the shower. This defies the conventional wisdom that bathing and showering, even at relatively high water lead levels, does not tend to elevate blood lead.

We became aware of this case in late July, when ABC12 Flint presented us with the case. At that time we offered to personally visit the home to investigate, but our offer was refused and the story ran July 27th, 2017. A few weeks later we heard rumors that Scott Smith (formerly of Water Defense) and Harold Harrington investigated, took samples, and tried to diagnose the problem. In the course of that work, it was claimed that lead fishing sinkers were found inside this person’s plumbing. In a response to an EPA FOIA related to the case of high water lead in this persons home, we have discovered disturbing documents (see below) and a video showing there is something to this rumor.

At a minimum, it seems that the mystery of astronomically high lead in this particular consumer’s home plumbing, is not as simple as the narrative that has been presented in the media. The documentation we have obtained to date, raises more questions than it answers.

Let us first compliment Mr. Smith and Mr. Harrington, because it appears they appropriately reported a discovery of lead sinkers in the plumbing of this resident to the EPA.  But did they also have an obligation to speak out, and correct the very public and misleading reports of dangerous lead in this resident’s water? What was their motive to not openly acknowledge, that there are some complexities to the story presented in the media, that are not being discussed?

We certainly have not heard the last of this story. Citizen science efforts in Flint, which in our experience and practice brought out the very best in people, have also occasionally been abused to bring out the worst in people. After the water crisis was acknowledged, a few reporters, academics, actors, activists and pseudo-scientists have attempted to exploit the tragedy for personal gain—it seems that their ends, sometimes justifies use of citizen science misconduct as a means. As these cases indicate, these tactics can create a spiral of distrust, that genuinely harms the community while undermining those who want to help the recovery.  Our intensive collaborations with hundreds of Flint residents over the last 2.5 years, in a quest to discover the truth about water quality whatever it may be, has shown us that the “good” of citizen science overwhelmingly outweighs a few “bad” examples. But the story of Flint has now become a cautionary tale, that includes citizen scientific misconduct.

Emails obtained via FOIA to EPA on finding lead sinkers from inside the resident’s plumbing

Download (PDF, 436KB)

Write-up: Dr. Marc Edwards and Mr. Siddhartha Roy

FOIA: Dr. Marc Edwards

Background research and data: Mr. Siddhartha Roy

4 thoughts on “Citizen Science in Flint: Triumph, Tragedy and Now Misconduct?

  1. Kim Cole writes on Wednesday, 29 September 2010 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Open Ideas website
    “I would like to see that towns school departments have lead paint abatement and/or lead certificates available online so that parents can be assured that schools are safe and lead free. My children and I have been exposed to 15,000+ micrograms of airborne lead dust. The CLPPP(Childhood lead poisoning prevention program) assured me we were safe. They were wrong and we got quite sick.Many state agencies dropped the ball and my ability to take anyones word is non existent when it comes to the topic of lead. I cant get this documentation from my childrens schools and I have made numerous inquiries to principles, school superintedent, and the business office for the schools. While were at it-lets work to lower the PEL(permissable elevated lead level) in Massachusetts kids from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5! A child is a terrible thing to waste. Thank you for your consideration and for this open forum. ” Please note that was in 2010!
    Our lead poisoning awareness GROUP was created To provide the public with information on lead paint/exposure and poisoning; To
    promote understanding of Massachusetts and State and Federal laws pertaining to lead; to provide links to news, educational and informational sites on the dangers of lead and information on wellness; and advocate for reform and funding for childhood lead poisoning. ~ In 2003 Kim Cole and family were poisoned by 15,000+ micrograms of LEAD dust when the Master state inspector of the CLPPP (childhood lead poisoning PREVENTION program) passed failing swipes at 18 Winthrop Street in Abington ,MA. , a rented apartment. The Board of Health ,landlord, OSHA and CLPPP took weeks to determine that a horrendous error had transpired. Their error could have cost children their lives. Lead can cause mental retardation, seizures and death. We have a Superior Court case pending. In the meantime , the law has been more clearly defined and in an unprecedented move The PEL (permissible elevated lead level ) has been lowered from 10 to 5 micrograms by the CDC in 2012. Please educate yourselves on the DANGERS found right in some of your own homes. Thank you for sharing lead poisoning awareness. Please sign and share our petition; and check out Julia’s lead poisoning awareness You Tube video. PEACE * Kim Cole was recognized as a Top Ranked U.S. Executive by the National Council of American Executives.
    ?? January 2017 COLE FAMILY LEAD ACT – Bill SD.751
    190th (Current)

    An Act creating a special commission to study the prevalence and prevention of child lead poisoning .

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