Group fears bathing risks in Flint water

Jim Lynch and Jacob Carah
The Detroit News

Federal regulators are re-assessing Flint’s water quality amid new questions about the safety of bathing and showering in it.

While no conclusive evidence has emerged indicating widespread dangers, a small sample of water tests conducted by a nonprofit has highlighted gaps, it believes, in the testing and water quality monitoring being used in the beleaguered city.

The organization contends that current testing focusing on water does not take into account possible harm from lead and other contaminants through inhalation of steam and vapor, as well as absorption through skin.

“You can’t find what you’re not looking for,” said Scott Smith, chief technology officer and investigator with the New York-based Water Defense, a nonprofit founded by Academy Award-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo.

In early October, Genesee County Health Department officials first urged residents to stop drinking their water due to evidence of widespread lead contamination. That directive prompted Flint residents to use bottled water for drinking and cooking. No restrictions on bathing and showering were suggested by local or state officials.

Following reports of persistent rashes among some Flint residents in January, state officials once again reiterated bathing and showering with city water was considered safe.

Yet that’s not something that can be known for certain, according to Water Defense.

“It is irresponsible and incomprehensible for anyone to declare bathing and showering is safe based on testing sinks and using drinking water standards to declare bath/shower water safe — let alone not even testing bath/shower water for the full spectrum of chemical,” Smith wrote in an email to The Detroit News.

“This includes testing the lead for volatilized particulate lead and other chemicals like chloroform along with testing the bath/shower water for all chemicals.”

Water Defense has called for state and federal officials to reword an advisory to indicate it is unclear whether bathing and showering in city water is safe.

“Skin rashes, lesions, asthma attacks, and they’re not going away,” Smith said. “One would think these symptoms would go away.”

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Michigan’s departments of Environmental Quality and Heath and Human Services are aware of Water Defense’s work. Nothing they have seen makes them believe the advisory on allowing residents to bathe in the water needs to be changed.

“Based on water testing and data collection so far, EPA and CDC ... do not have evidence that indicates the water in the Flint distribution system poses a hazard for bathing and washing,” an EPA statement Friday reads. “(EPA and CDC) continue to support the state of Michigan’s rash investigation with water sampling, patient surveys and dermatology referrals ...

“To further investigate the water quality in homes of residents with rash complaints, EPA has begun an expanded testing regimen that includes volatile and semi-volatile organics and disinfection byproducts.

“This will help determine whether there may be other chemicals in the water, or the infrastructure of homes, that could contribute to continuing concerns about water quality and health.”

On Thursday, a DHHS spokeswoman also said the state does not see a need to revise the water advisory.

“Based on what we know at this point, there is not reason that the guidance on bathing should be changed,” said Jennifer Eisner. “Our leadership has been in contact (with Water Defense), and we’re looking at the data.”

The CDC on Friday added its current analysis of the water “does not indicate health concerns for bathing or showering.”

“Federal, state and county health and water experts understand that Flint residents are concerned about the overall quality of their water — for drinking and for bathing,” the CDC said.

“At this time, current analysis of the water in Flint does not indicate health concerns for bathing or showering. Residents should continue to use water filters and pregnant women, women who are nursing, and children under 6 should use bottled water for drinking.”

DEQ officials, meanwhile, have met with Water Defense to go over the group’s findings and similarly believe there is no need to change the advisory.

Michael Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator, cautioned against Water Defense’s claims.

“At this time, with so much emphasis put on our water quality, I can see where people would be concerned,” Glasgow said. “But with most of our city testing, and even some of the state and EPA testing, we’re not seeing the same results.”

Glasgow added “that we monitor ourselves, from numerous sites in the city, and at this time, I don’t see a large concern.”

Water Defense has scheduled a public meeting for Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at St. Michael’s Church, 609 E. Fifth, to discuss the findings of its own testing and subsequent concerns.

Smith arrived in Flint in late January and conducted testing at 10 homes in the city. Instead of just using the standard method of drawing water from taps and analyzing, he also used a new technology designed to approximate the way residents are exposed to water — such as soaking or showering for far longer than it takes to draw a water sample.

Using both sampling methods, Smith found:

■Lead levels of 320 parts per billion entering some homes from the city’s distribution lines.

■Lead levels between 16 ppb and 530 ppb in water heaters, baths and showers.

■Chloroform/bromodichloromethane levels of 28 ppb to 105 ppb in water heaters, baths and showers.

■Dichlorobenzene levels of 120 ppb to 970 ppb in water entering homes, water heaters, sinks, baths and showers.

While no amount of lead is considered safe, the federal action level is 15 ppb.

As result, the testing Water Defense is calling for includes all of the exposure pathways: from water’s entry points into the home, to heaters, to sinks and bathtubs and showers. In addition, the group believes testing should target a wider spectrum of possible contaminants — beyond the particulate lead standard testing now searches for.

Mark Durno, a supervisory engineer at the EPA, described his concerns over the method Water Defense used to sample the water — sponges sitting in water then analyzed, versus a catch sample normally filled from a tap.

“At the end of the day, it’s not a sampling method that is used for drinking water purposes and all the other water analysis that we do,” he said. “That’s not a method we would use.”

But Durno said he is ready to work with Water Defense and learn about its analytical method.

“Learn about what they did and why they did it,” he said.

Smith and Durno have been meeting and comparing methodology and findings from different testing sites.

Recent history, particularly the 18-month stretch when residents got their water from the Flint River, puts the city in a particularly vulnerable position, Smith said. During that period the untreated river water is believed to have corroded the pipes, leading to lead contamination.

That situation was compounded by Flint’s early problems treating the river water — chlorine treatment that led to the creation of total trihalomethanes.

“Once you compromise those galvanized pipes, there is no turning back,” Smith said.

And he sees the myriad delays in Flint’s water getting back to form after returning to the Detroit Water and Sewerage System in the fall as evidence of that.

Through the EPA’s trihalomethane monitoring program, Durno said they see those compounds are present but they are “well below any need for concern.”

“The people here were exposed to high levels of heavy metals for nearly two years,” he said. “So we are concerned about any reports that might suggest they are still being exposed to high levels of anything.”


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Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.