Officials: High lead levels too much for Flint filters

Jim Lynch, Jacob Carah and Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Flint — Officials admitted late Friday the filters they’ve been handing out to residents may not be effective enough in removing lead from their faucets.

Water samples collected from 26 random taps since the last week of December have shown lead levels higher than what filters are rated to handle — above 150 parts per billion. That is more than 10 times the level deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than 3,900 homes were tested. The highest reading out of the 26 residences “was at least 4,000” parts per billion.

Mark Durno of the EPA said the agency learned of the test results “this week.”

“First six we learned about within the first day and half, and we have already reached out to those residents,” Durno said Friday. “We’re reaching out to the rest of those individuals tonight and in the next day.”

The samples came from prefiltered water, he added.

“It is essential that all Flint residents have the water in their homes tested as soon as possible,” said Gov. Rick Snyder in a statement released Friday evening. “Please make it a priority for your family and encourage your friends and neighbors to obtain testing kits as well. The kits are available free of charge at the water resource sites within Flint fire stations.”

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That sentiment was hammered home by health officials Friday night.

“We encourage all residents to get a water testing kit,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the U.S. Department of Health and Human services.

Lurie admitted officials “aren’t completely sure why” the results were so high, adding “it could be the way the samples are collected. We’re working with the EPA, and the Department of Environmental Quality have been getting on it right away. In other words, we’ve got to double check this.”

Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive of the state of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, advised pregnant women and children younger than age 6 to use only bottled water.

“Right now, as a resident of Flint, first off if you’ve had your water tested, and it’s testing under 15 ppb, you’re fine. It’s been tested, you don’t need to worry,” Wells said.

Liz Nowland-Margolis, a spokeswoman for NSF International, said the company had been aware questions are being raised about the effectiveness of filters bearing its seal that are being used in Flint.

Filter manufacturers voluntarily submit their products to NSF International for testing and certification tests. Based in Ann Arbor, the company certifies products and writes standards for food, water and consumer goods. It also conducts safety audits for the food and water industries.

“The filters remove 99.3 percent of all contaminants,” she said. “The issue is they don’t remove 100 percent. But nothing removes 100 percent.”

Another issue: Filters have a finite lifespan. The length of use for filters varies by product and the amount of water used, Nowland-Margolis said.

For example, a filter on a tap that’s a home’s only source for water is going to be used more than a home getting water from other sources. She said the NSF recommends consumers follow manufacturers’ recommendations.

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“It’s probably at the point now where many filters need to be watched and changed,” Nowland-Margolis said. “That’s very important.”

Friday’s announcement that the filters may not be able to address the amount of lead from faucets comes after almost two years of water woes and questionable government responses.

Residents say trust is a hard thing to come by in the city, which is under a state of emergency as result of using corrosive water from the Flint River. Residents have harsh questions for the elected leaders and state and federal agencies involved with the city’s water crisis. And many are no longer willing to put any faith in the answers.

Thursday afternoon, Cassidy Green, 29, stopped by her local fire department after work to pick up two cases of water and a new filter-equipped ZeroWater pitcher.

“The filters that the city was giving out before, the water was still testing with lead, so now they are giving out pitchers,” Green said. “At this point, we are just going with the flow of things. This is just crazy.”

According to city spokeswoman Kristin Moore, there is an explanation as to why the pitchers are now being made available.

“The pitchers are for our residents who have faucets where the filters don’t fit,” she said. “Some people, like our Mayor Karen Weaver, have the kind of faucets that your typical filter can’t work with.”

As a father of two, Joseph Isbell, 38, has decided he won’t take any chances.

“As soon as I heard that they were switching to the Flint River, I thought it was crazy,” Isbell said.

This week, he said he continues to puzzle over the things residents have been told by officials.

“Growing up, we were always told, don’t go down by the Flint River, it’s disgusting, it’s polluted,” he said. “For them to tell me that that was OK to take a shower in, you have to be out of your mind.”

On the opposite side of the city, Labrea Louis, 29, outside Station 3 on Flint’s north side, gave a heavy sigh after checking in with a family member to see if they have enough water. A lifelong resident of Flint, like Isbell, Louis said she is fed up with the uncertainty every time she turns on the faucet.

And like many residents, she saw brownish water coming out of her sink and shower last year, with a smell registering between chlorine and rotten eggs.

“This problem needs to be fixed now,” Louis said.

Staff writer Kyla Smith contributed.