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When will we know the water in Flint is safe to drink?

Mar 8, 2016

In Flint, there is no shortage of testing going on.

Right now, the state, the EPA, and outside researchers are testing all kinds of water samples collected throughout the city.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Flint on-scene coordinator Mark Durno says all parties will get together in a few weeks to go over the data they've collected.

"We are definitely going to be getting together to discuss the data later this month – early into April. From there, we may have some good news, or we may have some not so good news," said Durno. "Again, the data will drive the decisions."

The 5 major water tests running in Flint

Here's a quick rundown of the tests:

Tests by the state of Michigan

  • Random sampling  Right now, the state has collected and tested more than 14,000 drinking water samples submitted by people living and working in the city. The tests are done free of charge, and are a way people can find out what's happening with their water.
  • "Sentinel" site testing  this is testing done at around 600 homes throughout the city. The goal is to sample water from these homes every two weeks for the next six weeks. A subset of this testing will be used to fulfill the federal government's Lead and Copper Rule test. That test requires that at least 50% of the samples be collected from homes known to have lead in their plumbing.

Tests done by the Environmental Protection Agency

  • Sequential sampling  – These samples are drawn at different parts of a home's plumbing – samples from the main, from the pipe leading into the house, from inside the house, and from the tap – for example. Around 100 sequential samples have been done. The EPA will pick a subset of those samples for more evaluation.
  • "Pipe rig" testing – lead pipes from the Flint water system have been dug up and are put into a contraption that is connected to the water coming out of the Flint water treatment plant. The goal is to see how the pipes are reacting to the water being pushed through the system.
  • Chlorine monitoring – the goal of this monitoring is to determine how well disinfection chemicals and phosphates are being disbursed throughout the drinking water system. The system is oversized. It was built for a much larger population than is living in the city today. So this testing will help determine where the city needs to get the water flowing (by opening up hydrants, or asking people to open up their faucets to let the water flow).

Testing done by Virginia Tech University

  • Revisiting the Flint homes tested last year – Virginia Tech students and Flint residents are working this week to retest the homes they had sampled last summer. Those tests showed that Flint had a serious problem with lead. This is an apples-to-apples comparison, and one that will help determine how the water system is faring. 

Marc Edwards is now retesting for lead in Flint tap water.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

So with all of these tests going on, we were curious to know which tests are the most important to watch.

In Flint last week, Mayor Karen Weaver gave me her answer.

“All of them,” she said. “I watch all of them, because one thing we know is that everybody trusts the results of Marc Edwards  – probably followed by EPA and then DEQ, but one of the things is if we’re rebuilding trust, we want to watch all of them because if those can validate each other, then we can rest easy.”

We’ve heard that a lot from people in Flint. There’s a lack of trust in the government in this city.

That’s why a lot of people are looking to Edwards, who helped uncover the lead in water last summer. He’s the guy people trust most in all this, so they’re anxious to see what his team finds.

Making the final call on water safety

This map shows Flint drinking water test results for lead. Dots colored orange, red and purple mark samples that tested above 15 ppb, the federal action level for lead.
Credit Screenshot of a map generated by Mark Brush with the help of Elias Brush, Cass Adair, and SmartyStreets

The state is ultimately in charge of this response. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says that “all-clear” call will come when everyone agrees the water system is back to normal. Edwards agrees.

“We want Flint to at least meet the same lousy standard that every other city in the United States is,” Edwards says. “So in order to meet that, there’s really three, I think, results that people are waiting for.”

He names his latest round of testing – which is going on now – the ongoing random samples being collected by the state – and the samples the state is collecting to comply with the federal lead and copper rule. That rule has a standard of 15 ppb – if a city exceeds it, they have to take action. Edwards and others believe this standard isn't protective enough since any amount of lead exposure has been shown to cause harm in humans.

What we still don't know about Flint's lead problem

If you take these tests and put them on a map, you’ll see the samples that test above the federal action level standard – those are samples above 15 parts per billion in lead – are kind of random.

They’re found throughout the city.

So they’re still trying to figure where the lead is coming from.

We’ve heard from both the EPA and Edwards that little particles or flakes of lead can end up in anybody’s tap in the city right now. And that can lead to high lead test results.

Right now, the city is focused on finding the money to replace all the lead lines, but they’re still trying to figure out how the lead is moving around the water system.

Michael McDaniel is heading up the effort to replace the pipes in Flint. He says his team is looking at replacing lead service lines first.

EPA On-Scene Coordinator Mark Durno holds a bottle cap with lead particles in it. He says even a small piece of lead can cause a high lead level in a water test.
Credit Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

“If you’ve got a lead service line going into your house, or you’ve got a galvanized line – which is like a lead sponge, frankly – if you’ve got either of those kind of lines, that is going to probably be a source of lead,” McDaniel said. “It doesn’t mean it’s the only possible source of lead, it just means it’s the most obvious.”

We’re hearing the term “sponge” tossed around now. They’re talking about pipes – like galvanized pipes – that can have a lot of gunk inside them, like rust particles, and bad stuff like lead can get hung up on that. When a particle breaks free from that kind of pipe, off it goes, and it can end up in your tap water.

The EPA says its tests are designed to shed more light on what’s happening inside the pipes.

The bottom line is we don’t know yet when they’ll know when the water is safe to drink in Flint. EPA officials say we should have some answers next month.