Expert: Without filter, no water safe from lead pipes

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Nobody in America should trust drinking water that comes from a lead pipe without a filter, water expert Marc Edwards said Wednesday, calling the Flint water crisis an important lesson for the nation.

There is an emerging scientific consensus that “as long as those lead pipes are there, and filters are not in place, we will never again be able to say that water coming through a lead pipe — regardless of how good corrosion control is — is safe by modern standards, not only in Flint, but around the United States,” the Virginia Tech professor said.

More than an estimated 8,000 lead service lines are connected to residential homes in Flint, which announced Monday it has so far replaced 144. Nationally, there are believed to be more than 6 million lead service lines, according to a recent survey.

Edwards made the comments by phone Wednesday as he joined Gov. Rick Snyder for an update on state efforts to address the Flint crisis. It’s been roughly one year since the administration first acknowledged elevated lead levels in Flint’s drinking water.

Although the state has approved more than $234 million in aid for Flint, including $27 million to replace lead pipes, Snyder said more work must be done to help residents there. He encouraged federal lawmakers to finalize a funding proposal that would help cities like Flint with infrastructure needs.

The city used Flint River water between April 2014 and October 2015, when it returned to Detroit’s Lake Huron supply. It’s believed the harsh river water leached lead from the city’s aging pipes into the municipal system.

Flint’s drinking water is now being treated with “the best corrosion control, as recommended by the EPA, in the world,” Edwards said. Recent testing suggests city water may already be below the federal action level for lead, but the Virginia Tech professor called corrosion control chemicals a bandage for the larger issue of lead pipes.

“We know no matter how good corrosion control is, we can probably never keep lead out of the water to the extent we’d like to given what we now know about the harmful effects,” Edwards said. “This Band-Aid is nonetheless important and it is working.”

Edwards added that “there is no doubt that filters completely eliminate” the danger of drinking lead, even in Flint.

Snyder noted Flint has been picking up the pace on its pipe replacement program, but he encouraged quick action going forward after initial struggles to complete replacements in a timely fashion.

The governor has formed a commission to study infrastructure needs around the state and recommended tough new state standards for allowable levels of lead in drinking water. But asked if residents outside of Flint who think they have lead pipes should be using filters, Snyder stopped short of saying it should be mandated.

“I think what Professor Edwards was indicating is, if you have a lead service line, you should seriously look at the issue of potentially having a filter if you want complete confidence,” Snyder said.

Transformation Manager Rich Baird, a top Snyder aide who is helping lead state response efforts in Flint, offered a similar assessment.

“I can tell you that I have filters at my home because of everything I’ve learned,” said Baird, who lives in Bath Township. “I think we may have a situation with an antiquated infrastructure in this country, that using filters is simply the prudent thing to do.”

Snyder said the state does not have a firm count on the number of underground lead pipes around Michigan. Many communities, including Flint, have not kept up-to-date records on their underground infrastructure, and it “varies by communities dramatically,” he said.

The governor touted the more than $234 million in state support for the still-struggling city that the Legislature has so far approved, including money for filters, bottled water, improving nutrition, more school nurses, paying a portion residents’ water bills during the time their water was undrinkable and nearly $19 million for “future needs in Flint,” according to the governor’s office.

Snyder also said part of the recovery effort involves getting more jobs for residents in the impoverished city. According to Snyder’s office, 610 new jobs have been filled, which includes manufacturing jobs and others as the state worked with employers to find work for Flint residents.

The recovery included 413 more preschool slots for students who aren’t yet enrolled and 65 four-year-olds attended preschool over the summer as the state helped expand those programs. The state helped hire nine more nurses at Flint Community Schools to help monitor and aid students who might have been affected by lead.

More than 24,000 Flint residents are now enrolled in Medicaid, the government health care program for low-income residents, the governor’s office says. About 114 mobile food pantries have been created at 20 Flint locations to help residents get nutritious food in a city that does not have a single grocery store.

“Many of these efforts I think are really making a difference. These are good things. But we need to keep pressing ahead,” Snyder said, stressing the importance of a Flint federal aid package on which Congress is working.

The city is still distributing bottled water to residents, but Michigan State Police Capt. Chris Kelenske urged residents Wednesday to begin using filtered water rather than bottled water because it will help flush the pipes of residual lead, allowing residents to drink without filters sooner.

A task force appointed by Snyder to review the Flint crisis placed primary blame on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and also criticized the federal response. State-appointed emergency managers who were running Flint at the time made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, according to the March report.

The city’s use of river water generally overlapped with outbreaks of deadly Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County in 2014 and 2015, including 12 deaths from 91 diagnosed cases.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s criminal probe of the Flint crisis has so far resulted in charges against eight current and former state employees and a city utilities administrator.