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Edwards: Flint crisis near ‘beginning of the end’

Jim Lynch, and Karen Bouffard

Findings released Thursday indicate Flint, long troubled by water contamination problems, may be nearing “the beginning of the end of the public health disaster,” according to a key national expert leading monitoring efforts.

According to researchers from Virginia Tech, in the span of 12 months, the number of Flint homes at which water sampling shows non-detectable levels of lead has expanded from 9 percent to 45 percent in July. At the same time, testing showed a continued drop in the overall average of lead found in Flint homes — from 28.7 parts per billion in August 2015 to 13.9 parts per billion last month.

The federal action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion.

“Flint water now looks like it’s entering a range that is considered normal for U.S. cities,” said Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher whose team identified the lead contamination in Flint’s water last year. While the findings showed continued improvement, Edwards still urged residents to continue the use of bottled and filtered water.

The Virginia Tech team laid out its findings Thursday from sampling conducted in July at 162 homes. It’s a pool of properties that contain a high number of homes serviced by lead water lines.

But since testing conducted by Flint and state officials has failed to meet the parameters dictated by the federal Lead and Copper Rule — 50 percent of the homes must have lead lines — there can be no definitive declaration that the water meets standards, they said.

“It is very possible that the city of Flint is passing the Lead and Copper Rule standard, but we can’t say that,” Edwards said. “We can say that the trend is very good.”

News from Edwards’ research team in Blacksburg, Virginia, was welcomed in Flint. But Mayor Karen Weaver continued to stress caution.

“It remains unclear when it will be safe for the people of Flint to turn on their faucets and drink water straight from the tap,” Weaver said in a statement. “Professor Edwards said today that he would like to see not only the lead pipes in Flint replaced but the fixtures as well.

“Replacing the city’s damaged and antiquated infrastructure is essential, and we need the funds to do it. We know the residents of Flint want nothing less than new pipes and our work to make that happen is underway.”

Replacement of the city’s lead water lines has been slow, with less than 1 percent having been replaced so far. Additional work is expected to get underway in the coming weeks after Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board approved three new work contracts on Wednesday.

Flint’s water supply soon will be on par with other cities across the United States also in need of long-term infrastructure improvements, Edwards said.

“The corrosion controls and all of the things that are being implemented by the feds and the state and the city are really working, and Flint’s system is on its way to recovery,” Edwards said Thursday. “Getting the lead pipes and the lead plumbing out may across the country very well take 100 years.”

At issue with alarms

Testing conducted over the past few months has focused on more than just lead levels. In response to alarms raised earlier this year by Water Defense — a nonprofit fronted by actor Mark Ruffalo — Edwards enlisted experts’ help to ferret out the dangers posed to Flint residents by disinfectant byproducts.

In April, Water Defense claimed that testing conducted in Flint failed to take into account possible harm being inflicted on Flint residents by lead inhaled or absorbed through the skin during baths and showers. Additionally, residuals from chlorine treatments, such as trihalomethanes, were similarly ignored.

On Thursday, Water Defense Executive Director Ramsay Adams defended the group’s work.

“There is without question the presence of those compounds in the water,” Adams said. “The presence is there and the levels are fluctuating. If it’s true that the levels are safe and the problems are being mitigated, we’re heartened by that.”

Since Water Defense’s earliest proclamations, Edwards has criticized the group for what he saw as a less-than-scientific method and for raising unnecessary concerns among Flint residents who already had plenty to worry about.

On Thursday, Edwards referred to a “spike in gastrointestinal upset” in the population that coincided with many residents opting not to bathe or shower following Water Defense’s claims. To combat the group’s narrative, he called in researchers from the University of Massachusetts and the University of South Carolina to determine if Flint was seeing higher than normal levels of disinfectant byproducts.

After home samples were examined, Edwards said research teams determined “there is nothing unusual or alarming happening with respect to disinfection byproducts in Flint with hot or cold water.”

An increase in illnesses

Edwards said the study by University of Massachusetts and University of South Carolina researchers doesn’t discount the symptoms experienced by some Flint residents.

“Our advice is if you think the water is causing breathing difficulty or rashes to take that seriously,” Edwards told The News following the news conference. “Unfortunately, we cannot prove they’re being harmed by taking a bath or a shower.

“We do encourage people who are feeling that to take sponge baths (because) people who are afraid of taking baths or showers run the risk of worse problems. If you’re not having breathing difficulties or rashes, there is no valid reason why you should be scared by this group to stop bathing or showering.”

Jennifer Eisner, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said state health officials have been supporting efforts by the Genesee County Health Department to deal with an increase in gastrointestinal illnesses that can cause mild to severe diarrhea.

The county in May and July issued press releases notifying the public of increases in cryptosporidiosis, salmonellosis and shigellosis — diarrheal illnesses spread when bacteria found in stool makes it way to hands, surfaces or food. Health officials urged good hand hygiene and showering to combat the diseases.

jlynch@detroitnews.com

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