Experts: Flint’s water quality still improving

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Flint — The continued application of corrosion controls, in conjunction with a program of increased water use throughout the city, has paid dividends in Flint in 2016.

In a familiar message to Flint residents, water experts delivered a positive progress report Tuesday and offered evidence the city’s water is moving closer to being healthy enough for all uses. But that goal likely remains many months away, they said.

Lead levels in the city’s water continue to drop as evidenced by new rounds of sampling. In addition, water experts delivered good news on two other areas of recent concern: Legionella bacteria and disinfectant byproducts that may be present in Flint water.

Earlier this year, residents were asked to help expedite the water’s recovery by increasing their usage, a move to flush the system of as much particulate lead as possible. Last month, federal, state and local officials provided additional encouragement by creating a program to pay for residents’ water usage.

Researchers from Virginia Tech say that effort has paid dividends.

“We’re seeing some very encouraging results,” said professor Marc Edwards, whose research team has been working in the troubled city for more than a year.

Edwards was joined by researchers from Wayne State University and the University of Massachusetts.

Experts had warned in April that Flint residents weren’t using enough water to pull necessary chemical treatments through the city’s system, hindering efforts to get water up to safety standards in a community afraid to use its taps and loath to pay for what comes out of them.

Edwards said Tuesday it will be months, at least, before all of the groups monitoring the situations are likely to agree the water is safe to consume without filters. Pregnant women and children younger than 6 are still encouraged to use only bottled water.

Flint is trying to overcome damage to its delivery system over an 18-month period when the city drew its water from the Flint River and failed to treat it with corrosion controls. The failure to add chemicals is believed to be connected to high levels of lead detected in the water last summer as well as a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

Since October, when Flint began getting its water from the Detroit-based Great Lakes Water Authority, conditions have slowly improved. More comprehensive test results should be available in the summer.

“This (flushing) program appears to have helped,” Edwards said. “We won’t know for sure until we do another citywide sampling (project).”

Testing for Legionella bacteria also has shown a steady reduction in its presence in the water system since Flint went on the GLWA in October.

“We see that the numbers of Legionella bacteria went down from October through March — after using the Detroit water with corrosion controls,” Virginia Tech professor Amy Pruden said. “This is the case in both large and small buildings.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that while Michigan is experiencing an increase in Legionnaires’ disease cases this year, no cases of the respiratory disease were discovered in the Flint area, where an outbreak killed 12 people in the past two years.

From April 2014 to October 2015, the city’s water came from the Flint River. During that stretch, 79 people were sickened by Legionnaires’ disease. Forty-five cases resulting in five deaths were reported for the June 2014-March 2015 period, and 46 cases resulting in seven deaths for the May-October 2015 period.

Despite the positive trend, Pruden said Flint’s situation still needs monitoring, particularly in the coming months when cases of Legionnaires’ disease are likely to see a seasonal rise.

Continued flushing in city homes is recommended to keep water in the system from stagnating and picking up particulate lead. And Pruden said residents with severe flu-like symptoms should see a doctor.

For months, the nonprofit organization Water Defense — fronted by Academy Award-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo — has repeatedly raised concerns over the presence of disinfectant byproducts in Flint’s water.

Such byproducts are caused when chlorine introduced into a water system reacts with organic matter. In high enough concentrations, it can be harmful to human health.

Water Defense has claimed the state’s water use advisory, under which residents are allowed to bathe in the water, puts them at risk.

For weeks, Edwards has accused Water Defense of causing undue alarm in the Flint community and criticized the science behind the group’s work.

On Tuesday, another expert joined Edwards in calling out Water Defense. University of Massachusetts professor David Reckhow discussed testing conducted recently to address the concerns raised by the nonprofit.

Reckhow questioned the group’s water sampling techniques and said his own team’s testing had shown Flint’s water is comparable to that of other systems around the nation with regard to disinfectant byproducts.

“There is nothing out of the ordinary,” he said.

Shawn McElmurry, a Wayne State University associate professor, backed Reckhow’s findings — particularly with trihalomethanes, or THMs, a byproduct Flint has had problems with in the past.

“We generally see the same picture,” he said. “After getting Flint back on (GLWA) water, there is nothing unexpected.”

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