VT professor: Flint water still not safe to drink

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BLACKSBURG (WSLS 10) - The water in Flint, Michigan is still not safe to drink.

That's according to Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, who is a nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality and credited with helping expose the high lead levels in the city's water.

The Flint Water Study team released results of its second round of testing at a news conference Tuesday on Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus.

"The system is slowly improving," Edwards said. "The more the residents use the water, the faster the system will heal."

During March's spring break, a team of VT engineering students worked with residents led by Lee-Anne Walters, a former Flint resident, to collect water samples for second round of lead and iron testing.

Two weeks ago, Flint homeowners were sent a personal letter from the Flint Water Study team with their individual results.

While the tests do show improvement, those in Flint should continue to use water filters and drink from bottled water. Testing by the EPA has confirmed that the lead filters distributed in Flint reduce water lead to below 3 ppb even in homes with the worst lead.

Virginia Tech's student team had previously worked with Flint residents in a historic sampling in summer 2015 that demonstrated serious lead in water contamination throughout the city. This month marks two years since city officials switched Flint's drinking water source to the Flint River from the Detroit system.

Last month, the team was able to re-sample 174 out of the original 269 homes that were originally tested in August 2015.

Analysis of the first draw shows that levels of lead in Flint water at 23 parts per billion, which is still above the 15 parts per billion federal standard as set by EPA. But levels have improved from the 29 parts per billion lead level from the August 2015 testing. More dramatic improvements were observed in flushed water samples, with a 50 percent reduction in lead levels in March 2016 compared to August 2015.

Iron levels in household water have also dropped as a result of the implementation of corrosion control, but with a percentage of homes still exceeding the EPA's secondary iron standard. On average, iron levels decreased from seven percent to four percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

The team conducted a detailed investigation of water use in a few homes that had persistently high levels of lead, revealing many residents are using very little water. For example, two homes with persistent elevated lead levels were using 20 percent to 45 percent of the monthly volume considered typical for U.S. homes.  It appears that the abnormally low water use in some Flint households is a result of:

  • An effort to reduce water bill.
  • Showering once per week for five minutes to reduce the likelihood of rashes and other concerns associated with the water.
  • Using bottled water for baths, washing dishes, and other uses.

Unfortunately, low water use in Flint homes hinders recovery of the water system.

"The delivery of the cure is simply not happening with the system at its current level. The way to recovery is to get more water running through the system." Edwards said. "Many people believe if they use less water if will be better. That is simply not true."

Pieper said regular water use is needed to help clean out loose lead deposits and control biofilms within the pipes.

Edwards said Flint residents shouldn't have any more concerns about taking a bath or a shower than residents of any other city.

Edwards has worked to seek collaborative solutions to the crisis. He serves on Michigan Gov. Snyder's advisory group and has testified multiple times before Congress on the crisis.

"The EPA has done an outstanding job, demonstrating that the NSF-certified lead filters work very well in Flint, which confirms our own extensive field testing and laboratory experiences," said Edwards.

Edwards said his Virginia Tech team will continue its partnership with Flint residents. He said the team will recommend to the EPA and state to repeat water sampling in Flint late this summer.