Experts: Water health dangers don’t subside in Flint

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Local health officials and the federal government are warning Flint residents that the danger from their tap water has not subsided even though the city has reconnected to Detroit’s water system.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who uncovered lead exposure in city children two months ago, wants residents to continue their use of bottled water. This comes three weeks after Flint began receiving its drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

For the previous 18 months, the city drew its water from the Flint River in an effort to save money. The high corrosive levels of the river water and a failure to use adequate corrosion controls led to unhealthy amounts of lead reaching residents.

In October, Flint and Detroit water officials announced Flint was back online with Detroit’s water system, but cautioned it was not a quick fix.

“While the actual switch ... will happen immediately, it is expected that the thorough transition from Flint River water to Detroit water will be complete in approximately three weeks,” DWSD said in a statement at the time. Along with the phosphates used by the Detroit system to control corrosion of lead in water delivery pipes, the city of Flint was expected to add measures for protection.

But Hanna-Attisha doesn’t want residents taking any chances.

“Even though we’ve switched to DWSD, we have lost the sealed layer (protecting against) corrosion,” she said. “And we’ve aged our infrastructure 30 years. Nobody knows when that seal will come back ...

“For our most vulnerable populations, pregnant women and infants, they should never be using tap water.”

Officials with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality agreed with Hanna-Attisha’s assessment on corrosion measures, saying it has taken “up to several months” in other cities across the country. As a result, residents should try to find out exactly what is or isn’t in their water.

“The only way for a homeowner to know for certain is to have their home tested,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel. “DEQ and the city of Flint offer free testing for Flint residents, and we recommend concerned residents take advantage of it.”

Greg Eno, a Detroit water system spokesman, said the utility simply provides the water complete with corrosion controls. Measuring how quickly the controls reach maximum effectiveness is done by the city of Flint, which owns the pipelines, he said.

On Wednesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials issued their own warnings in a report that highlighted the lead dangers inherent in the city’s aging underground infrastructure.

“... (E)ven with corrosion control treatment in place in the future, physical disturbances will be capable of dislodging the high lead-bearing scale and sediment from non-lead pipes and well as lead pipes...,” according to the report. Such disturbances include construction work and line replacement.

Flint residents have endured problems with their water since the spring of 2014, when the city’s state-appointed emergency manager severed the relationship with the Detroit water system system. The hope was that the switch to the Flint River would help the financially troubled city save money until its new water system that draws water from Lake Huron — the Karegondi Water Authority — becomes operational in the second half of 2016.

Almost immediately after the switch, however, residents began reporting foul odors, strange tastes and cloudiness in the water coming from their taps. Local and state officials argued that testing showed the water was safe, but relented a month ago when Hanna-Attisha’s deeper dissection of the data found high levels of lead in Flint children.

“Infants and children who drink water containing lead in excess of the action level could experience delays in their physical or mental development,” according to the EPA. “Children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities.”

Water safety fears led residents such as Kelly Wilson to make tough choices. The 55-year-old regularly makes the trek from her subsidized apartment building to the Family Dollar store just a block to buy water.

Wilson said she spends between $40 and $50 each month, which is difficult since the widow’s fixed income during the same period is $740.

She said she can’t afford all of the water she needs, so she puts her fears aside long enough to take showers and brush her teeth with the city water.

“I wonder when I’m showering and it gets in my pores — what is this doing to me?” Wilson said.

The lack of faith in Flint’s water isn’t surprising, Hanna-Attisha said.

“This community has been lied to, and they have no trust, no trust in government,” she added.

Critics hold the state responsible for the situation, since Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed emergency manager was in charge when the decision was made to begin drawing water from the river instead of the Detroit system’s Lake Huron. Emails between state and federal officials have shown the DEQ was aware of potential problems stemming from a lack of corrosion control as early as February.

On Thursday, a pair of Democratic Flint-area state representatives called for an investigation into how DEQ handled water samples from one home in the city that showed exorbitant levels of lead early in the year. Reps. Phil Phelps of Flushing and Sheldon Neeley of Flint, responding to a Michigan Radio report, said they want to know if state officials threw out the results to keep the city from exceeding federal standards.

In October, DEQ Director Dan Wyant said staffers failed to apply the proper water quality protections as prescribed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

Also on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, renewed calls for legislative hearings on the state’s failure to handle the situation properly. It would include a Senate subcommittee with subpoena powers.

“The Legislature has a unique role and responsibility in thoroughly examining what went wrong, what still needs to be fixed and how to ensure this sort of crisis never happens again,” Ananich said.

Snyder appointed a five-person, bipartisan task force to review the actions of DEQ and other governmental agencies in Flint’s switch to Flint River water.

State Auditor General Doug Ringle said last week his office will look into questions raised about the department’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. Ringler’s office already had an operational audit of the office underway before Ananich requested the state auditor find out what “accountability measures” are in place for DEQ staff who do not follow water testing data protocols.

In the meantime, Hanna-Attisha is recommending that those using Flint’s tap water use tap filters that are being supplied for free by the city and state. The water also should be used cold, she said, since warmer temperatures cause a greater amount of leaching in lead pipes and plumbing.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.