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Boil water advisory adds to confusion over how to make Flint tap water safe to drink

Feb 11, 2016

The volunteer group Crossing Water put up billboards like this in several places in the city.
Credit John Sellek / Courtesy photo

If you live in Flint, it can be really hard to figure out what you should and should not do with your tap water. The messages from officials, scientists and non-profit groups sometimes conflict with one another and they’ve changed over time.

This week, an unfortunate turn of events has made an already confusing situation even worse.

Michael Hood started going door-to-door in Flint last month. The wilderness guide from the Ann Arbor area was part of a newly formed group called Crossing Water, and they wanted to see what they could do to help people in Flint.

“Most folks have heard that the water is not safe to drink, but not everybody,” Hood said.

It might seem crazy, Hood says, with the Internet and 24-hour cable news, that some people in Flint still don’t know about potentially dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. But, Hood points out, there are a lot of people who can’t afford Internet or cable, who don’t speak English, who cannot read.

“They’ve heard from word of mouth that the water is bad, so they’re just boiling the water thinking that’s going to be OK. There are also a lot of immigrants from South and Central America, and when the water is bad down there they know to boil the water because it’s usually a bacterial issue or something in the water,” he said.

But when you boil water that’s got high levels of lead in it, the lead doesn’t go away. It just gets worse, more concentrated, more dangerous to drink.

Hood was dumbfounded that no official agency seemed to be addressing this common misconception. So his group jumped into action, working with some billboard companies, TV and radio stations, to get the message out: Boiling your water will not remove lead.

But then, on Tuesday, there was a major water main break in Flint. That caused the water system to lose pressure. That means there was the potential for dangerous bacteria to get into the system. So the city put out a notice, warning people to boil their water.

“It really does send a contrary message, and that message has to get out there unfortunately, but it really has sent a confusing message to the public. So people are really scared. People are really confused and they don’t know what to do,” Hood said.

Public officials acknowledge it is a confusing time.

“People were concerned again, ‘oh my gosh, is it safe to shower or bathe?’ So you can imagine the confusion. I certainly can understand the confusion,” said Dr. Eden Wells. She’s the chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Until the boil water advisory is lifted, Wells says people in Flint should boil their tap water after it’s gone through a certified lead filter. The state put out a list to help clear up the most commonly asked questions about the advisory.  

Once the boil water advisory is lifted, people will need to replace the cartridges on their lead filters. A state health department spokesman says there are “plenty” of replacement filter cartridges available. Residents can get filters and cartridges for free at distribution centers across the city.

Wells says the good news is that preliminary tests show no sign of dangerous bacteria because of the water main break. But, Wells says, they have to wait for another round of tests that won’t come back in until sometime Friday.

“I’m hoping that we’re dealing with just this 48-hour period of that very confusing time for everybody,” Wells said.

Even without the water main break, there’s been a lot of confusion about lead in water in Flint.

While I visited homes with high lead in water tests last week, people said they weren’t sure if they could shower or brush their teeth with unfiltered tap water. Others worried the filter they got didn’t fit right.

James Todd’s water has tested high for lead twice in the last month. One test came back more than 60 times higher than what the federal government considers acceptable.

“I was kind of shocked. I was scared, I guess, because we used the water and consumed it and never thought anything was wrong with it for over a year now,” he said.

One official from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality stopped by Todd’s house last week. Todd says this DEQ official told him his water was safe to drink with the certified lead filter. But Todd showed me the instructions that came with the filter, which say it won’t remove lead if levels are as high as his.

The U.S. EPA did tests that show the filters will work at these levels, but still, Todd’s skeptical.

After the team of state officials left, Todd says he’s more concerned.

“I read something about vacuuming your floors. That vacuuming your floors will actually cause lead dust now. Well, where’s that coming from on my floors? How’d it get on my floors?”

Todd flips through some paperwork on his kitchen table that the state officials left.

“Maybe it was in here I read it,” he says, pausing to read from a pamphlet about lead exposure.

“Oh yeah, here it is, it says ‘use doormats, take your shoes off when indoors. Vacuuming carpets may pull more lead dust to the surface, so use a non-motorized sweeper to clean carpets,” Todd reads from the pamphlet.

“I don’t have non-motorized carpet cleaner. Maybe they’ll have them at the fire department pretty soon too, you know?” Todd says, laughing a little, before continuing, "clean window sills and wipe play areas down with paper towels and soapy water.

“This is the paperwork from the guy who just left my house, just before you got here."

Todd owns his own painting business. He served in the Navy. He watches the news. He got the results from his first lead test after spotting a map of the city's latest test results on social media and searching for it. He’s even had multiple visits from various officials and volunteers. He’s no dummy. And still, he’s confused about how to protect his family from lead in Flint.