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Mich. universities move to research Flint water crisis

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Stewart Allison McFerran remembers growing up in North Muskegon four decades ago when out-of-state university researchers played a prominent role in examining the mass poisoning of Michigan’s food supply with polybrominated biphenyls, or PBBs.

The 1973 health crisis occurred when fire retardant containing PBBs was accidentally mixed with animal feed. As the disaster unfolded, researchers from New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai studied the health effects on hundreds of chemical workers and dairy farmers.

McFerran sees a parallel in the Flint water crisis: the most prominent researcher involved is Marc Edwards, a professor from Virginia Tech, a school hundreds of miles from Michigan.

Edwards tested a Flint family’s water last spring, discovered high lead levels and conducted further testing that showed widespread contamination. That prompted research that showed lead in the blood of Flint children and led the city to change its water source from the Flint River back to Lake Huron.

“It’s a huge problem and it’s a university in Virginia that is investigating this and you’ve got the University of Michigan (Flint) that is right there,” said McFerran, a resident of Lake Ann, a village in northwest Michigan near Traverse City. “What is the problem with Michigan universities? It seems very strange to me.”

A number of Michigan university reseachers are working on efforts to address the water crisis, including some based in Flint. But others wonder why an out-of-state professor has had such a high-profile role in uncovering the problem.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Hurley Medical Center, is the researcher who demonstrated elevated lead levels in Flint children’s blood. She said the reason for Edwards’ involvement is simple.

“Professor Edwards is a world corrosion expert,” said Hanna-Attisha, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University and leading a study in partnership with Hurley Children’s Hospital. “This is what he does and there are not many people in this field.”

Likewise, researchers from the medical school at Mount Sinai were involved in the PBB crisis because of their expertise, said Michele Marcus, a faculty member at the time.

“The Mount Sinai School of Medicine was a national leader in studying the effects of environmental exposure so it really was appropriate for them to do the work,” said Marcus, now an Emory University professor and principal investigator of the Michigan PBB Registry.

Additionally, all researchers get funding that is earmarked for a course of study, which can restrict their ability to take on local health or environmental crises.

“Research is a labor intensive and an expensive endeavor,” said Shawn McElmurry, a Wayne State University civil and environmental engineering associate professor who will soon lead an independent team looking at the Legionella cases in Flint. “Without the proper resources, we can’t pick up everything and divert our attention to other subjects.”

To do his research in Flint, Edwards got an emergency grant from the National Science Foundation, tapped his own funds and is now trying to recoup $150,000 in expenses through a GoFundMe campaign.

As Flint’s water crisis has deepened, a number of Michigan universities are pursuing research efforts there. Among them:

--Wayne State University: Gov. Rick Snyder’s office is in discussions with the school about an independent inquiry into the possible association between the increased number of Legionella cases observed in Flint, and changes in the water distribution system.

--University of Michigan: President Mark Schlissel issued a “call to action this week” that includes $100,000 in seed money for researchers to identify ways to respond to the water crisis. Also, a UM-Flint professor, Marty Kaufman, is applying for funding for community-based participatory research to assess and address lead contamination in tap water associated with Flint’s drinking water distribution system, which was installed nearly 100 years ago.

--Michigan State: The university’s College of Human Medicine announced a partnership with Hurley Children’s Hospital for a Pediatric Public Health Initiative aimed at addressing the lead exposure in Flint by providing assessment, research and monitoring, and interventions.