Flint switched from Detroit’s water system last year and is now using the Flint River until it can hook up to Lake Huron.
But there have been major problems. Residents complain about the water tasting and smelling bad. The Department of Environmental Quality cited Flint in December for violating the Safe Water Drinking Act.
That’s because they found high levels of trihalomethanes or TTHM. Those chemicals are a byproduct of disinfection. The EPA says TTHM can cause health problems and an increased risk of cancer if you drink high levels over many years.
Rob Nicholas is a vice president of the consulting firm Veolia North America.
“We’re going to look at the numbers, we’re going to look at the plant, we’re going to decide how the equipment’s functioning, look at the raw water, look at the finished water, decide how it’s getting through the pipe to the house, and from that, decide how to fix each of those problems as we go forward.”
He says they’ll also advise the city on how to make the system more resilient so these problems don’t happen again.
Researchers conduct quality tests
When Flint issued boil water advisories to residents last fall, it did not affect the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. But a team got together to figure out how they would handle the situation if it did eventually happen, because the campus is connected to the city water system. Mike Lane directs Environment, Health, and Safety on the U of M’s Flint Campus; he was a part of that team.
"So we did some initial planning on that and then the discussion quickly moved to 'well, maybe we should do some testing just to see what the water quality conditions were,'" he says.
The researchers took dozens of samples in January from the water supply that was going into the buildings as well as from the fixtures that were inside the buildings such as water fountains and sinks. The raw data that they have show that none of the samples had trihalomethane levels that were too high based on state and federal regulations.
“Having these results was really comforting for the people on our campus,” Lane says.
Other contaminants found in samples
But Lane added that they did find some other problems. One of the samples was acidic — about as acidic as vinegar or lemon juice. Lane is also concerned about some other samples that showed high levels of lead.
“This is totally not related to the city water problem. This is related to water sitting in pipes for very long periods of time and then leaching any metal that may be present,” he says.
Lane says two drinking water fountains have been closed down. He says they were rarely used and that may be part of the reason for the high lead levels found in water samples from those fixtures.
However, in one building, people are being told not to drink the water and take precautions like running the water for a little while before using it for cleaning and other tasks.
Analysis will be ongoing
The bottom line is that the water on campus did not have levels of trihalomethanes that were too high.
But there were a few samples that were close. The regulatory limit for trihalomethanes is 80 parts-per-billion. Two samples were at 72 ppb.
“And that’s the reason why we want to continue to test," says Lane. "I don’t see that as an issue at this point but I think it’s important to keep testing and doing it frequently enough that if there is any trending [problem] we can catch that."
And there’s good reason to keep an eye on the TTHM levels going forward, because the city has to use more of the disinfectants in the summer to treat the water. And so the level of trihalomethanes tends to be higher as the weather gets warmer.