How Far Has Flint Come Three Years After Its Water Crisis Began?

27:10 minutes

Bottled water distribution by the National Guard in Flint, Michigan. Credit: Shutterstock
Bottled water distribution by the National Guard in Flint, Michigan. Credit: Shutterstock

Nearly three years ago, the city of Flint switched its water source from the City of Detroit to the Flint River. In that changeover, officials failed to apply correct corrosion treatment, which caused lead from service pipes to flood into the city’s drinking water. Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in December 2015, and the following month, the EPA and FEMA placed the city in a federal state of emergency that would last until August. Since then, the city has switched back to the Detroit water source, and scientists, residents, and regulators have been working to bring down lead levels. Last month, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tests showed that lead levels in Flint’s water system fell below federal “action level.” But residents are still advised to use filters on their faucets or bottled water for their drinking water.

[Here are some tips on how to keep your drinking water clean.]

Engineer Marc Edwards, who tested the first water samples and alerted officials of high lead levels, explains how lead can leach from pipes into drinking water, and discusses the different strategies for bringing down lead levels in Flint. Plus, environmental hydrologist Martin Kaufman describes the difficulty in locating existing lead pipes in city.

Plus, reporter Lindsey Smith of Michigan Public Radio talks about how other cities in Michigan are evaluating their own water infrastructure.

Segment Guests

Lindsey Smith

Lindsey Smith is a reporter at Michigan Public Radio, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Marc Edwards

Marc Edwards is a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Martin Kaufman

Martin Kaufman is an environmental hydrologist and professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Michigan, Flint.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan started nearly three years ago. Residents started noticing brown water flowing from their taps. Kids were testing positive for lead poisoning. Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in December 2015, and the following month the EPA and FEMA placed the city in a federal state of emergency that would last until that summer.

Lead from pipes had been leaching into the drinking water. Some of the worst-hit homes saw lead levels 10 times higher than the EPA limits. Since then, officials, residents, and researchers have been working to bring down the lead levels. And last month the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality test results showed that the drinking water in Flint fell under federal action levels. So residents are still advised to drink filtered or bottled water, but they are free to bathe in the water.

How far had the lead levels come in Flint? What are the problems? What were the problems that let so much lead leak from the pipes? Are other towns in danger too, but are they flying under the radar? We’re going to talk all about the lead water crisis in Flint and possible ramifications and things that we have learned.

Here to discuss this stuff with me are Lindsey Smith, a reporter with Michigan Public Radio. She’s based out of Grand Rapids. Marc Edwards, professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Welcome to Science Friday.

Lindsey, let me begin with you. You’ve reported on and followed this story pretty closely. Give us some background. What were the details of the decision making? What went into changing the water sources? Give us some idea of the background here. Lindsey, are you there?

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): I’m here. Can you hear me?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me?

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): I can. 10-4 So yes, this is a big question you’ve thrown at me.

IRA FLATOW: Take it apart piece by piece.

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): How long do you have?

IRA FLATOW: Tell me about some of the history of the decision making that went into changing the water sources. How did this start out?

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): So this started out under a state emergency manager, which Flint had because of their dire finances. And the emergency managers at the time was an appointee of the governor, so this is not an elected official, which is why you get a lot of pushback about the decision-making process.

So the state officials, in an attempt to try to save the city money, because Flint pays some of the highest water bills in the nation, they tried to make a switch to this new water system that is still under construction. And because the new system was still under construction, there was this back and forth between the city of Detroit, which is where Flint buys its water from, Detroit.

And basically Detroit, when Flint said, we’re going to go to this new system, Detroit didn’t take it so well. They were also going through a bankruptcy at the time, and to lose a big customer like that, they weren’t pleased. So they said, well, if you want to go to this other system, well then we’re going to charge you more.

So instead of agreeing to pay this more money to Detroit, the emergency manager said, OK, well, we’ll go to the Flint River and get our water from the river. But in doing that, they didn’t upgrade the water treatment plant to be able to properly treat that water. And they didn’t add corrosion control, which is something that’s really important in a city like Flint where you have these old lead service lines. They’re really common in older cities.

And so that is how we had this lead contamination. Over 18 months, that water that wasn’t treated properly really messed up the pipes and leached that lead from not only the service lines, but old plumbing in people’s houses and that sort of thing.

IRA FLATOW: Marc Edwards, the city did eventually start putting the corrosion control chemical into the water. Why won’t the pipes just form another layer and the system sort of heal itself?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): It will from the perspective of water quality. That is the extent that this coating keeps the lead out of the water. And you’re protecting the water from the iron pipe which is eating up the disinfectant. However, there is damage that was done during this time period that’s irreversible.

Specifically, corrosion eats holes in metals that weaken the pipes. And so to some extent during this time there were massive outbreaks of water main breaks. Literally, the water was eating holes through the iron pipes. And that damage cannot be undone both to the city’s big pipes, the water mains, but also to some small extent that we probably can’t quantify to the plumbing, the water heaters, and other devices in the consumer’s home.

IRA FLATOW: And now according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Flint lead levels fall under a federal action level, but residents still can’t drink the water without a filter, right? So what does that benchmark really tell us about the water, how safe it is?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Well, what it tells you is a higher standard is currently being applied in Flint than anywhere else in the United States, and with good reason, because the public trust was betrayed. We have criminal indictments that have occurred here because federal law was not being followed.

So even though these levels of lead that are currently in Flint’s water are not worse than many other US cities with old lead pipe, people are very reluctant to remove the public health protections that are in place– specifically, the use of bottled water or filters.

So until the lead levels go lower and a reasonable amount of time has passed, no one’s going to declare that this water is as safe as other US cities and that people should drink it, but rather, it is in the range of other US cities. But we’re encouraging people to continue using the free filters that the state and the feds are providing just to provide that extra measure of health protection.

IRA FLATOW: Lindsay, there is a lawsuit out now about providing access to water and filters? Tell us about that.

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): Well, there’s about 1,700 lawsuits. This is just one of many. There’s a ton of lawsuits. This one in particular right now, a group of residents and the Natural Resources Defense Council are asking a federal judge to force the state and the city to deliver bottled water or make sure, like send a team of people, experts, to people’s houses to make sure that people’s filters are properly installed and are working.

These filters that the state gives away are the ones that clip on your faucet, and it seems easy maybe to do, but not everybody is able to do that and get them to work properly. And you have to replace the cartridges every so often, so there’s concern that these filters aren’t being installed properly by people, normal people that are trying to put them in their sink. At first they ruled to force the state to do that, but now that the water is under the action limit, the state is arguing that that shouldn’t be necessary.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Let’s go to the phones. If you’d like to call 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Tent City, Missouri. Hi, Susie. Welcome to Science Friday.

SUSIE (ON PHONE): Hi. I have a question about what type of filtration system you need to get for your house if you don’t have a faucet filter and you want to do a whole-house filtration system. Is it like reverse osmosis? Or what type of filtration system is that?

IRA FLATOW: Are you fearful in your own home about lead?

SUSIE (ON PHONE): No, but we have problems in Southern Missouri with lead, and I have friends that live in Southern Missouri, and there’s a lot of people down there that could be affected. So I was just curious what we could do.

IRA FLATOW: Good question. Marc, you want to talk about that?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): About 40% of all water customers around the country, through some reason or personal preference, decide to use some sort of filter. And the reasons are varied. It could be that their water is too hard and they want to make it softer, in which case an RO filter is appropriate.

IRA FLATOW: Reverse osmosis.

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Right. It could be that they’re worried about lead, in which case an in-the-faucet filter is the best approach, because it cleans the water that passes through all the lead pipes and there’s no chance that the water will get contaminated after it flows from the faucet into your cup or a cooking utensil.

There’s also people concerned about aesthetic issues, which might involve using a sediment filter or a whole-house filter that just removes particles. But we do point out that these filters do have some drawbacks, especially the whole-house filters. One of the biggest problems that we realize we have in this country in recent years is bad bacteria that grow in plumbing systems that can kill you. And that was something that manifested itself in Flint. 12 people died from one of the worst waterborne outbreaks of Legionella in US history.

And these whole-house filters sometimes have triggered Legionella bacteria levels to increase in home plumbing, so we’re a little bit reluctant to recommend these things. A lot of it’s on personal preference, and the water in your system. To some extent, the in-the-faucet filters are very safe because they’re not messing up the water that’s sitting in the rest of your plumbing system. You’re cleaning it up right before you use it. And you can do relatively little harm to yourself by installing these filters and actually do yourself a lot of good.

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): Yeah. That’s a good point. If I can, we get this question a lot from Flint residents. Should I do a whole-house filter? Doesn’t that just seem like a better idea than these ones that go on your faucet? But what Marc was saying here is that up until even 2014, lead-free faucet pieces in fixtures could also have a percentage of lead in them and be considered lead-free. So even though you may be filtering your water, when it comes into your home, there’s all these fixtures and pipes inside of your home that you could leach stuff from after it goes through that whole-house filter.

IRA FLATOW: Not to mention the lead solder in some of the pipes.


IRA FLATOW: Let me bring on another guest, because if the lead pipes are the problem, isn’t the answer is to just pull them out? Yeah? Well, it’s easier said than done. Money, of course, is a big issue. But the problem is even more basic than cost. How about we don’t even know where the pipes are? My next guest looked into this situation. Martin Kaufman is an environmental hydrologist, professor of earth sciences at the University of Michigan in Flint. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well let’s talk about you made a map of the lead service pipes in Flint, but you had trouble finding the records. Is that correct?

MARTIN KAUFMAN (ON PHONE): Yeah, well we found the records. We had trouble with the quality of the data in the records. The city at Flint had used paper maps to record an indicator on parcel maps, 240 of them, what type of pipe was servicing a parcel in the city. There are 56,000 property parcels in the city of Flint, and they marked each one with a code. For instance, L was indicative of a lead service line. L2C was indicative of a copper to lead or lead to copper connection. And they put a diameter of the pipe for those that were galvanized.

There are 11,000 missing records out of the 56,000. Now remember, these data were only recorded until 1984, and they were put on paper maps. So when we approached the city to help them put this in digital format, we stitched together all 240 maps and scanned them. And then we created a procedure in a geographic information system to transfer the code from the paper map onto a real parcel database. So that gave us a preliminary indication based on these data at the time of where lead existed in the service line system within Flint.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. With so many tens of thousands of service lines, you can’t remove every single one of them, can you, Martin?

MARTIN KAUFMAN (ON PHONE): Actually a couple cities have. Madison, Wisconsin and Lansing, Michigan have undergone voluntary service line removal and about 8,000 service lines have been removed in those cities. But they didn’t do it under emergency conditions. Marc, you were going to say something.

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Well, even in Washington, D.C., when the city resolved that they were going to replace every single lead line in public space, what they realized is the way they were doing it was actually lead poisoning children because you’re cutting into hazardous material, and chunks of lead were going into people’s houses for a long time afterwards. And the more they looked, the more lead pipes they found, and so eventually they spent $100 million, actually increased the incidence of lead poisoning, and found more lead pipes than they’d ever imagined and they just gave up.

IRA FLATOW: So who’s footing the cost for all these replacements in these different states?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): It’s always the ratepayer. You, through your water bills, you’re one way or another paying for this except for the part that’s on the private line. The city will offer you to replace it at a cost, but what was happening in d.c. was people were getting the offer to pay $5,000 to replace their part of the lead pipe. Less than 1% of the people did that.

And so this is actually creating a long-term problem in that the city’s records indicate there’s no lead pipe. You’ve also disturbed the lead pipe and you’ve connected the copper. And actually you’ve left the situation worse than you found it. In many cases. the city is replaced it’s part of a lead plumbing and charged you through your rates.

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): Ira, this is kind of an important point here that not everybody grasps when I talk to people is that this service line that goes from the water main to your house, part of it is, in most cities, owned by the public, like in the easement, that’s the city-owned portion, but then the part that’s on your property line, that’s yours. That’s your responsibility in most cases. And so what Marc is talking about here that in D.C. know they went in and did partial replacements which can make things worse.

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): And in Lansing they actually own the whole lead / that was one advantage they had to getting all of their lead pipe of the ground.

IRA FLATOW: But how certain are you, Martin, that you know where all the pipes are?

MARTIN KAUFMAN (ON PHONE): We’re not. That’s part of the problem. Again, one-fifth of the records were missing. We’ve got a lot of pipes that right now we don’t know exactly where the leads– if there’s lead in them or not.

To date, the city has dug up 800 pipes. So a couple of professors from Ann Arbor have put together a simulation program based upon the data that has been acquired so far to try to predict where there might be lead pipes within the system. And as we gather more data from the excavations and from inspections within the home, our process of identifying where the pipes are will become better.

IRA FLATOW: All right we’re going to take a break. Can I ask all of you just to hang with us while we go through the break and come back and talk lots more about this? We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’ll talk about the lead levels in a Flint water system and maybe some more suggestions about what to do it. We would love to hear from you. Our number 844-724-8255.

If you live in Flint or in Michigan or another city where you think there’s a lead problem, you can dial us. 844-724-8255. Tweet us @Scifri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow in case you have just joined us, we’re talking about the continuing problems with the drinking water in Flint, Michigan with my guests Lindsay Smith, a reporter with Michigan Public Radio, Marc Edwards, professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, Martin Kaufman, environmental hydrologist professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Michigan in Flint. Our number is 844-724-8255.

Dr. Kaufman, the city’s official tally for the number of lead service pipes they’re going to remove is 28,100 service lines. Now that’s much higher number than what you came up with. What accounts for the difference?

MARTIN KAUFMAN (ON PHONE): Well, our estimate was based only on that 1984 data. Remember, we had 11,000 pipes which were of unknown origin in terms of the material, and also about 13,000 which were classified as galvanized. So the city’s estimate includes the galvanized pipes and also probably some of the unknown as well. That’s the reason for the disparity.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Washington, D.C., to Miriam. Welcome to Science Friday.

MIRIAM (ON PHONE): Thanks so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of your show and my dad is a [INAUDIBLE], so my whole family is a really big fan. I wanted to ask your guests about the role of citizen science. I mean you’re talking about these huge gaps in the data. Seems like a lot of work to track where the lead is. But I was just wondering what’s the role of citizen science and crowd science in dealing with the huge amount of data?

IRA FLATOW: Good question. Anybody want to take a whack? Marc, any idea here?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): One thing consumers can do is to go and try to identify the material that’s coming into their basement or the part of the service line that is coming into their house. There’s videos on the internet that tell you how to determine if that’s a lead pipe. And the one thing you can be sure of if you have a lead pipe coming into your house you have a very significant health risk.

What you can’t be sure of is if you have a copper or galvanized iron pipe coming into your house that there’s a lead pipe somewhere out there that you don’t see. And so for that you need the city to come and usually dig a hole in your yard, unfortunately, because as Marc said, the records are so bad they don’t even know where the lead pipes are.

IRA FLATOW: We have a tweet here from Elizabeth. She says, “I live in Pittsburgh. Reports that we might be headed the way of Flint. Any information for us?”

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Well, I could speak to that. Pittsburgh actually has admitted that they are over the lead and copper rule, and of course there’s concern that they’ve been hiding their water problems going back to 2013. But they’re trying hard to get good corrosion control in place, and you should follow the city’s advice to flush your water or use bottled water or filter, especially if you have a lead pipe. It’s official that Pittsburgh has too much lead in their water according to federal standards. They have worse lead than Flint right now.

IRA FLATOW: What about the whole country? These can’t be just outliers, can they? There’s a very old water system in this country.

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Well, in the aftermath of Flint, what we’ve discovered is that in most cities when we looked at the records and how they’re sampling that in many cases they were falsely reassuring people that their water was safe when it wasn’t. So there’s been exposes by The Guardian, by USA Today, and realize that this spans the range from our biggest cities to our post-industrial cities to rural America. There was a front-page USA Today report in December of last year. So this is why everyone is upset about Flint, because they have learned they can’t trust the water supply in their own city in many cases.

IRA FLATOW: Lindsey, are cities in Michigan monitoring their drinking water differently because of what happened in Flint?

LINDSEY SMITH (ON PHONE): Many cities are, yeah. We’ve seen cities like Detroit and Kalamazoo test ahead of schedule. If you’re following the lead and copper rule, a lot of cities are on this reduced monitoring schedule, so they only have to test for lead once every three years and in a limited number of homes too. So you’re not getting nearly the amount of data that you are in Flint’s case, for instance. So in Detroit, Kalamazoo, they tested a year ahead of time. They weren’t supposed to test until this coming summer, but they tested last summer.

And then a lot of things that I’m seeing across the board, or in cities that can have there– as my grandma would say– their poop in a group, they are checking their records to make sure that they are in some semblance of order.

And Detroit and Kalamazoo also checked the homes that they did for compliance testing, they did what Marc said, basically send somebody into the basement to check that line and not just go off of the records or the list that they’ve used in previous testing years. They’re actually verifying that they are testing the homes that they’re supposed to.

And that is such a key, because in Detroit’s case, as an example, that’s the biggest city in Michigan and it has by far the most led service lines of any city in the state. And they were determining where lead service lines were based on the year that the home was built or the year that the home had attached to the water main.

So if your home was built before I think it’s 1948 that they went by, it’s somewhere around that range, if it was before that they counted you as a lead service line. But they didn’t necessarily know that. They just went off of that number. So in those cases, you may be testing homes that are not going to even show you the dangers. So I think we’re seeing more testing and we’re seeing some cities going out and verifying and doing that work that should have been done in the 90s when the lead and copper rule got passed.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go out to South Bend, Indiana, to Brian. Hi, welcome to Science Friday, Brian.

BRIAN (ON PHONE): Hey, good afternoon. So it was my understanding that when lead pipes were in use the water municipality or the water districts would have an additive to the water, some kind of ion that what oxidized a lead so that the water [INAUDIBLE] through the pipe wasn’t leaching any lead particles out of it. And so in Flint’s case, when they switched to the river those additives weren’t in the water. Is that accurate? And if so, are there chemical solutions that we can look at rather than the tear out and replace tack that most cities are looking at?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Yes, that’s called corrosion control. And the general idea of corrosion control is add a chemical to the water that keeps the lead on the pipe and out of the water. And this is a very important public health intervention. It’s how we reduce lead in water across the country, regardless of service line material.

But what we’ve realized in the last few years is that this has been a very imperfect Band-Aid, and even in the best of circumstances little pieces of land are sometimes falling into water, creating a health risk. And so we once thought we could do a very good job protecting the public and make the water safe, even if they have a lead pipe.

And in the aftermath of Flint, what we now realize is that’s not the case, that probably we’re never going to be able to say that it’s safe to drink water from a lead pipe, not only in Flint but in fact all around the United States. And so probably you’re going to see more emphasis on lead pipe replacement and use of these filters to protect people. So corrosion control is an important Band-Aid, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

IRA FLATOW: Marc, you published a study last week that looked at lead not only the lead pipes but also galvanized pipes. What did this tell you about how lead flowed through the system?

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): Well, what we discovered in Flint is that some of the worst houses actually had a lead pipe followed by a galvanized iron pipe. And what had happened over the almost a century some of these pipes had been in the ground, is the iron rust on the galvanized iron pipe sponged up lead at very, very high levels.

And when the corrosion control was discontinued, that iron rust fell off with a lot of lead coming with it, and that probably created the worst health danger in Flint. So ironically, even though the lead pipe was the source of most of the problems that we think we saw during the crisis, it was this particular configuration where you had an iron pipe followed by the lead pipe where people were at greatest risk.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me just sum up in the last minute we have here. So what I’m hearing is that you’re saying the only solution is to rip out the pipes and replace them. And until you do that, to get your water filtered.

MARC EDWARDS (ON PHONE): That’s correct. That’s what’s being recommended in Flint right now. Bottled water, use of filters, or otherwise you’re risking your family from the health effects of these lead pipes.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today. Lindsey Smith, reporter with Michigan Public Radio in Grand Rapids. Marc Edwards, professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Martin Kaufman, a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Michigan in Flint. Thank you all for taking the time today.

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