UMass Experts Recruited To Address DBP Questions In The Aftermath Of The Flint Water Crisis

The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a tragedy. The lead (Pb) issue is well documented, as are the health effects from ingesting lead. No safe blood Pb level in children has been identified, and exposure to elevated levels of Pb can cause intellectual impairment and other health issues.

More recently, concerns have arisen regarding disinfection byproducts (DBPs) in Flint drinking water. Unlike exposure to high levels of Pb, the risk from DBPs is a chronic exposure risk, not an acute poisoning risk. In general, consuming elevated levels of DBPs is thought to cause an increased risk of some cancers over a typical lifetime. For this reason, some representative DBPs are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Water Act.

DBPs are formed in the water distribution system through an oxidation reaction between chlorine and natural organic matter (NOM). This formation of DBPs is an unfortunate negative consequence of adding chlorine for water disinfection, which is very common in the United States and other countries. Water chlorination has been practiced for 112 years, starting in Jersey City.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of water chlorination–perhaps the most important public health breakthrough of modern civilization, leading to eradication of most waterborne disease. However, the chlorine required to inactivate pathogens also reacts with NOM to form halogenated (chlorine is a halogen) organic byproducts including total trihalomethanes (aka TTHMs) and Haloacetic Acids (HAAs). This reaction is well understood, and is known to be a function of NOM concentration and character, pH, chlorine dose, time, temperature and other factors. DBPs are always formed whenever chlorine is added to surface waters, but the concentration and type of DBPs vary somewhat from city to city.

TTHMs in Flint water were shown to be problematic in 2014, with violations noted in the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) of that year. (A similar violation for HAAs occurred in Amherst, Massachusetts that same year). Recently, DBPs including TTHMs have drawn attention following the discovery of Pb and other issues in the Flint Water system, and the subsequent measurement of some DBPs by non-scientists. However, the methods used in this sampling were unorthodox, relying on proprietary sponges marketed by the group, to collect samples, and the results are not comparable to refined and standard scientific methods. There are proven, peer-reviewed and published methods for collecting and analyzing DBP samples. These methods were refined by researchers at UMass, and trustworthy data that is scientifically rigorous are needed during times of crisis.

The UMass team was recruited by Virginia Tech, to execute the advanced DBP sampling. The team (lead by Dr. David Reckhow) is bringing drinking water quality expertise, to quantify the extent of DBP formation in the drinking water currently delivered to Flint residents, following the switch back to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD). It should be noted that, before the switch to Flint River in 2014, DWSD water was far below regulatory limits for TTHMs and HAAs, and no changes to the system during the water crisis is expected to affect formation of DBPs in the Flint system.

Initial results from samples collected in May 2016 indicate that there is nothing exceptional about DBP levels in Flint. Additional rounds of sampling and analyses are now being conducted to gather more information. Beyond regulated TTHMs and HAAs, the UMass team is also conducting analysis for >60 unregulated byproducts to get a more complete picture of the drinking water quality.Results from analysis will be forthcoming.

Members of the UMass Flint DBP Team include:

Dr. Dave Reckhow (Team Lead)

Dr. Joe Goodwill (DBP sampling, THMs, Iodo-THMs and other volatiles)

Yanjun Jiang (Iodo-THMs and other volatiles)

Xuyen Mai (DBP sampling)

Xian “Max” Ma (DBP sampling, Haloacetamides)

Ran Zhao (Haloacetamides and HAAs)

Soon-Mi Kim (Haloacids)

Yun “Rosa” Yu (N-halo-haloacetamides)

Aarthi Mohan (Halobenzoquinones)

Pranav Mashankar (Aldehydes)

Sherrie Webb-Yagodzinski (Sampling preparation)

Select members from both UMass Amherst and Virginia Tech during a sampling trip in late-May
Select members from both UMass Amherst and Virginia Tech during a sampling trip in late-May

Primary Author: Dr. Joseph Goodwill

Acknowledgements: Drs. Dave Reckhow and Marc Edwards

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.

Our friends at “WaterYouFightingFor?,” LeeAnne Walters and Melissa Mays win the “Hammer and Chisel Award” for their courage and heroism

Very well deserved!

These awards are created in conjunction with the upcoming release of Michael Moore’s new movie Where To Invade Next and honor “individuals who have, in their own unique and courageous way, made America a better place for all.”

We knew things were bad when water coming out of the kitchen taps in our homes in Flint, Michigan, looked like frying oil and smelled like an open sewer. We’re not water experts; we’re moms. But thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of regular citizens, we learned our drinking water was contaminated with lead, a fact that our city and state governments refused to acknowledge for far too long.

Read the full story here: The Huffington Post

Our VT Research Team wins $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study Flint water

We are really excited and proud to announce that our research team just won a $50k Rapid Response Research (or RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant proposal titled “Synergistic Impacts of Corrosive Water and Interrupted Corrosion Control on Chemical/Microbiological Water Quality: Flint, MI.” was submitted to NSF in late July.

RAPID grants are  “used for proposals having a severe urgency…., including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”

Read the Virginia Tech press release here.

Read the full proposal here:

Download (PDF, 220KB)

Dr. Marc Edwards serves as Principal Investigator for this grant. He is joined by Drs. Amy Pruden (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Joe Falkinham III (Biology) who will serve as Co-Principal Investigators. Dr. Brandi Clark and PhD Candidate William Rhoads contributed to writing this NSF proposal.

Results from Field Sampling in Flint (Aug 17-19 2015) : Opportunistic Pathogens #2

Report 5. Additional Testing for Opportunistic Pathogens

During our recent sampling trip to Flint on August 17-19, we collected samples to analyze for the presence of Opportunistic Pathogens (OPs). We reported previously that we did not find evidence to indicate that the OPs Legionella pneumophila, which may cause Legionnaire’s Disease, or Mycobacterium avium, were present in any of the samples we collected.

During our trip, we collected samples from nine businesses located throughout the city of Flint, including eight of Flint’s designated monitoring sites and a business located in close proximity to the drinking water treatment plant, and seven homes of Flint water consumers. For comparison, we also collected water from four businesses that receive water from Detroit. At each of these sites, we collected both water samples and swabs of bacteria growing on the surface within the faucet, known as the biofilm.

Here we report on our results for several additional OPs, alongside the previous results, based on presence of DNA markers specific to each bacterium. Pathogenic species are indicated in red. Mycobacterium spp. represents a genus of bacteria that includes several pathogenic and non-pathogenic species. Vermamoeba vermiformis is of interest because it is an amoeba that may play an important role in the life cycle of some pathogens, such as Legionella pneumophila. In addition, we attempted to culture pathogenic Staphylococcus species from the samples.


Table 1: Frequency of detection of several Opportunistic Pathogens (shown in red) and additional microbes of interest that are not necessarily pathogenic (shown in black)
Table 1: Frequency of detection of several Opportunistic Pathogens (shown in red) and additional microbes of interest that are not necessarily pathogenic (shown in black)

Table 1 demonstrates that we did not detect quantifiable levels of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Legionella pneumophila, or Mycobacterium avium in water or biofilm samples collected from any of the sixteen sites in Flint. Acanthamoeba polyphaga was found in the biofilm at 3 sites in Flint. Acanthamoeba polyphaga is an amoeba that is often associated with eye infections of individuals using tap water for contact lens care rather than sterile saline, but has also been associated with skin and respiratory infections. More information on this amoeba can be found here.

Water from each site was also cultured using methods specific to growing Staphylococcus. Only two sites resulted in Staphylococcus growth. DNA from 10% of the resulting colonies were sequenced to identify the species. All sequences were identified to belong to either Staphylococcus epidermidis or Staphylococcus hominis. Both species are frequently found on the skin of healthy individuals and are not typically pathogenic.

Figure 1: Culturing Staphylococcus spp. revealed species of the bacterium that are not typically pathogenic
Figure 1: Culturing Staphylococcus spp. revealed species of the bacterium that are not typically pathogenic
Figure 2: A method known as Sanger Sequencing was used to identify species of Staphylococcus based on unique patterns in the bacterium’s DNA. An example of the sequencing output is shown here. Each colored peak represents a fluorescent signal and corresponds to a different letter in the DNA sequence, which can be seen at the top of the display.
Figure 2: A method known as Sanger Sequencing was used to identify species of Staphylococcus based on unique patterns in the bacterium’s DNA. An example of the sequencing output is shown here. Each colored peak represents a fluorescent signal and corresponds to a different letter in the DNA sequence, which can be seen at the top of the display.



Although the number of samples collected has been small and were collected from each site on a single date, our results do not indicate the presence of pathogenic OPs in Flint water, with the exception of sporadic detection of Acanthamoeba polyphaga in biofilm samples. Overall, this limited sampling, indicates that from a microbiological perspective Flint water does not seem to pose a health risk worse than many other U.S. cities that we have sampled. However, the chronically low chlorine residuals throughout the distribution system, suggest that this issue should be the subject of continued scrutiny.

Additional Notes: The method we used to quantify the pathogens is called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). It works by detecting DNA specific to the target microorganisms, making the method very specific, but also very sensitive, as an organism does not necessarily need to be alive or culturable for us to identify that it is present. The minimum threshold of target bacteria, or more accurately the bacteria’s DNA that must be present in the 1-liter samples that we collected is 10 DNA copies per mL or 104 copies in the entire swabbed biofilm. This is the best available and most sensitive method of OPs detection.

Analysis and write-up: Emily Garner

Acknowledgements: Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Amy Pruden