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Edwards' team shows dramatic drop in Flint lead levels

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Researchers say the quality of Flint’s water is improving — it might even meet federal lead standards — but a key national expert monitoring the city’s tainted-water crisis says it may never truly be safe enough to drink until all lead pipes are pulled from the ground.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and his team detailed their evaluation of lead levels as well as bacteria, iron and disinfection byproducts at a news conference Friday.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and his team detailed their evaluation of lead levels as well as bacteria, iron and disinfection byproducts at a news conference Friday. Their samples showed a dramatic drop in lead levels.

“The story is actually an amazing success story,” Edwards said of the findings comparing water samples in 2016 with those from 2015.

First-draw samples taken from 154 voluntary homes in Flint in November show 6 percent of the homes above 15 parts per billion, the federal action level for lead in drinking water. That percentage is down from the 9.7 percent in July, 15 percent in March and 17 percent in August 2015.

“So this continued increase of lead reduction have shown that the water system has been continued to recover and heal due to intervention of added corrosion inhibitors and flushing the system with high flow rates,” Virginia Tech doctoral student Min Tang said.

The team concluded Flint is likely meeting the federal Lead and Copper Rule, and lead and iron levels have continued to decrease since July.

But since testing conducted has failed to meet the parameters dictated by the federal rule, there has been no definitive declaration the water meets standards, they said. Edwards’ team took voluntary samples and did not always target high-risk homes.

Residents have been instructed to use only filtered or bottled water for consumption, and researchers encouraged those practices Friday until further notice from state or federal officials. No amount of lead is considered safe.

“We’re now approaching the end of the public health crisis. So again, no one should be drinking Flint water unless they use a lead filter,” said Edwards, the researcher whose team identified the lead contamination in Flint’s water last year. “... This is out of an abundance of caution.”

Edwards pointed toward replacing the city’s water infrastructure as its solution, noting corrosion control chemicals in the water can only heal the system so far.

“It’s very likely folks will never be told the water is safe as long as those lead pipes are there,” Edwards said.

Another area of concern for researchers was Legionella bacteria in the municipal water system.

A deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County killed 12 people and sickened another 79 between June 2014 and October 2015 — a time period that corresponds with Flint’s use of the Flint River for drinking water.

As of November, there have been 15 Legionnaires’ cases in Genesee County in 2016.

William Rhoads, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, said water heaters in 30 homes were tested this summer.

“Our key conclusion from this study in June regarding Legionella was that there was very low incidents of Legionella in these homes,” he said. “Only two out of the 30 houses tested (had detectable levels of the bacteria).”

Last month, they conducted follow up samples at one of the homes that initially tested positive.

“In November, we were not able to detect any culturable Legionella inside the house at all,” he said.

Henry Henderson, director of the Midwest Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised Edwards’ findings but argued state and federal officials must do more to provide clean water to Flint residents.

“Today, Dr. Marc Edwards announced that Flint’s water is improving. We’re encouraged by this, but in the meantime — while the people of Flint must continue to rely on bottled water and filters — it’s inexcusable that the city and state are claiming in two federal courts that providing these resources to everyone in Flint is a ‘herculean’ task burdened by astronomical costs,” Henderson said in a statement.

A federal judge ruled last month the state of Michigan and Flint have to provide home-delivered bottled water to residents if they can’t prove faucet filters are working to remove harmful lead from the drinking water. The state and city are fighting the order, arguing water delivery in Flint could harm ongoing recovery efforts because residents would use their taps less often.

Flint’s water supply became contaminated by lead after the city switched its source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in April 2014.

Much of Flint’s effort to correct the quality of its water has been focused on replacing lead service lines in residential areas of the city.

University of Michigan professors, who had believed the city had 8,000 lead or galvanized steel service lines, now estimate the city has as many as 29,100 lines. That’s more than half, 53 percent, of the service lines leading to 55,000 homes and businesses in Flint, Mayor Karen Weaver said Thursday.

Of the 29,100 parcels, 17,500 would need full replacement of service lines while 11,600 would require partial replacement, according to the UM researchers.

The latest number is based on inspections of service lines leading to 159 homes using a Hydrovac to flush dirt from around the pipes near the curb.

Because only a small number of lines have been inspected or replaced, researchers concede their estimate may be too high.

Weaver’s goal is to have service lines replaced at 1,000 homes by the end of December, although the actual number may be fewer due to bad weather. More homes will receive new pipes next year, with the number depending on the funding received.

The state of Michigan has set aside $25 million to pay for pipe replacements through September, enough to pay for replacing pipes to about 5,000 homes.

Congress is considering an aid package that would bring tens of millions of dollars to Flint that could be used to repair the city’s damaged water system. If the 29,100 figure proves accurate, replacing the other 28,100 service lines could cost at least $140 million.