EPA: Filtered water in Flint safe for all residents

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — The federal Environmental Protection Agency reported Thursday that filtered water in Flint is now safe enough for all residents to drink, including pregnant women and children.

The announcement comes after the EPA, along with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, completed testing with state-distributed water filters and determined they removed lead well below the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. The filters are rated to handle 150 ppb.

EPA officials and others, including Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, said in a conference call with reporters that lead levels when tested in homes with properly installed filters, which remove 99.3 percent of all contaminants, were effectively limited to undetectable amounts in the majority tested.

“In most cases, the levels of lead coming through the filters were too low even to be detected,” said Tom Burke, EPA science adviser and deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Thursday’s announcement was in stark contrast with the findings reported in late January, when officials said lead levels collected in some random samples of 26 homes were above the 150 ppb threshold. One residence tested then “at least 4,000” ppb.

Officials then determined the filtered water was not safe enough for children younger than 6 and those who were pregnant.

During the last two months as protective anti-corrosion measures took hold in the city’s pipes, the EPA collected samples from about 50 high-risk locations — sites with lead service lines and galvanized plumbing — “where the most vulnerable populations live, including pregnant mothers and children.”

Nearly all of the samples from those test came back showing concentrations below 1 ppb, according to the EPA.

EPA officials said Thursday that improvements have been seen in even non-filtered water and they expect the lead traces to continue to decline.

“I want to encourage the residents to know that it’s safe to use filtered water, which really will further help stabilize our water delivery system,” Weaver told reporters. “This is good news, and it’s good to see that agencies in all levels of government recognize that additional work needs to be done, but we’re coming together to make these things happen.”

According to the state’s data, more than 25,600 homes are confirmed to have a water filter, which covers 91 percent of water customers.

On Saturday, state teams will be going to more than 2,300 households to check if a water filter is present.

“Volunteer teams will be canvassing the city to ensure the remaining households on the water system that may not have a water filter for some reason are given the opportunity to have one,” said Capt. Chris Kelenske, deputy state director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security and commander of the Michigan State Police, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division.

Weaver said that although much work still needs to be done, the announcement that lead levels are largely diminished with filters is great for the people of Flint, many of whom have been outspoken in doubting that filtered water is safe to drink.

Environmental officials, who acknowledged residents may not trust the science that the filters provide safe drinking water, are working on circulating fact sheets to 300 public locations and doing workshops to show residents how to install filters.

But some Flint residents remained unconvinced by Thursday’s announcement.

“I’ve got a couple of (filters) now, but I don’t trust them,” said Flint resident Darnell Jordan, 41. “Would you? After every thing that has happened, everything they told us that wasn’t true.”

Local college student and Detroit native Davin Ervin, 22, echoed those sentiments.

“First they said we had to boil it, then they said it’s fine, it’s not fine, then we had a big old national crazy mess, and we still have them telling us to boil the water,” he said.

Weaver said officials need to be “transparent” with residents but “we know that this is not the ultimate solution to the problem. We’re still working to get new infrastructure for the city of Flint. In the meantime, it’s good news, and it’s reassuring to hear that the filters work even better than we ever thought they did.”

The state’s Flint Water Response Team has distributed more than 124,000 water filters and more than 272,000 replacement cartridges in the city since January.

“This good news shows the progress we are making with overall water quality improving in Flint but also proves further that the filters provided by the state to alleviate risks to Flint residents are very effective,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement Thursday.

Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also said “residents can be confident that they can use filtered water and protect their developing fetus or young child from lead.”

Lurie noted residents should use the filters for water used for drinking, cooking and teeth brushing. She added residents should replace the filter cartridges regularly.

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.

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.

Lead levels in the city’s water continue to drop as evidenced by the most recent rounds of sampling. But there are other concerns with the city’s municipal water system.

The EPA sent a letter to Flint earlier this month outlining its concerns about the summer’s impact on the amount of chlorine in the system. The chemical element is used to prevent disease-causing organisms from developing.

Flint responded by installing a new temporary system to increase its chlorine levels.


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Freelance Writer Jacob Carah contributed.