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.

The Unintended Consequences of migrating to Flint River water

The City of Flint had been purchasing drinking water from neighboring Detroit for almost half a century. With rising water costs rooted in an acute fiscal crisis, the city’s Emergency Manager decided to stop this practice. Instead, the city decided to treat the nearby Flint River for potable use beginning April 30 of last year (2014). This was a temporary move until Genesse County (where Flint is located) and other Michigan counties finished building a ‘Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline in 2016. The Flint River basin has suffered from poor water quality for a number of years and the water is difficult to treat. The most recent consumer confidence report further acknowledges that on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being most at risk for contamination, the Flint River is a 7.

Immediately following the switch, consumers started noticing a drastic reduction in tap water quality. Initially it was taste and odor problems. Flint residents have described their water to be blue, yellowish, and even sewerage-like, with unpleasant odors. Discolored water caused by metallic rust, released from unlined cast-iron pipes or iron service lines carrying the water with increasing corrosion occurring along their lengths. Microorganisms like sulfate-reducing bacteria living in the rusty pipes can produce the smell of rotten eggs (i.e. hydrogen sulfide) and render the water acidic.

Figure 2: Exemplary pictures looking into Flint drinking water pipes, showing different kinds of iron corrosion and rust (Photo: Min Tang and Kelsey Pieper)
Figure 1: Exemplary pictures looking into Flint drinking water pipes, showing different kinds of iron corrosion and rust (Photo: Min Tang and Kelsey Pieper)

There were also health concerns associated with multiple violations of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, most notably due to Coliform bacteria and Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs). High levels of coliforms indicate likely fecal (i.e., sewage, poop) contamination of the potable water supply. The Flint River has significant sewage input, and if the treatment plant does not completely remove the bacteria and other dangers posed by the sewage, high coliforms and public health risks can result. The TTHMs are formed when naturally occurring organic compounds (i.e., decaying leaves and grass and plants) present in the water react with the free chlorine, which is added to destroy the fecal bacteria that may be present in the Flint River water (see Dr. Joan B. Rose’s guide to TTHMs in Flint Water). High TTHM levels are a health concern and are suspected to cause a wide array of health problems with long term exposure.

There are also serious concerns with high levels of lead leaching in the water from lead pipes that connect homes to the cities water mains via the service line connection, and also from lead plumbing (i.e., lead solder, leaded brass). See Figure 3 for a detailed schematic. Lead is the best-known neurotoxin and can cause severe learning, neurological and developmental disabilities in both fetuses and children under the age of seven. A Flint household with lead levels measured at 397 parts per billion or ppb by the city (the action level from the EPA is 15 ppb) had a child with increased blood lead level after the switch to Flint water. The high blood lead in the child is even more disconcerting given that the family was not directly drinking Flint water, and the harm therefore arose from either back contact (or indirect ingestion — incidentally consuming water while bathing or from washing dishes, for instance)  or consumption of highly filtered water (two filters were in use). Flint River is very corrosive for iron and lead materials, compared to the water previously purchased from Detroit. Orthophosphates that are commonly added to corrosive waters to minimize lead leaching from aged water distribution pipes made of or containing lead, but water from the Flint River is so corrosive that use of orthophosphate might not provide the normal benefits and might actually make things worse.

Figure 1: Potential Sources of Lead Contamination in tap water of homes, schools and other buildings (Triantafyllidou 2011)
Figure 2: Potential Sources of Lead Contamination in tap water of homes, schools and other buildings (Triantafyllidou 2011)

Clearly, the dramatically increased corrosivity of the Flint River water versus previously purchased from Detroit, and the relatively high contamination of the water from Flint River, has created significant challenges for the Flint Water Department and the City to address. It is possible, that no matter how competent and effectively this source is treated, that Federal Regulations for bacteria, chlorine levels, lead and TTHMs considering Flint’s old water pipe system cannot be met. This issue will be a key subject of our research.

Primary Authors: Ni Zhu and Siddhartha Roy

Acknowledgements: Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Brandi Clark, William Rhoads