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Lead removal from Flint water making progress, researchers find

Lead levels are dropping in Flint, Michigan, but residents should still flush taps, according to test results Virginia Tech researchers announced Thursday.

In the most recent round of testing in July, 45 percent of homes did not have detectable levels of lead, compared to only 9 percent of homes in August 2015.

“This really shows that the corrosion control and all the other things implemented by the feds, the state and the city are really working,” Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who led the study, said in a press conference. “Flint’s system is on its way to recovery.”

Video by Associated Press

Researchers cautioned that the study, which was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, was a random sampling and did not target “high-risk” communities, which are likely to have higher rates of contamination.

“Homeowners in Flint should continue to follow the state and EPA’s advice of using their lead filters and continuing to drink bottled water,” Virginia Tech Ph.D. student Kelsey Pieper said.

Virginia Tech’s work in Flint began last year when the first round of testing discovered that the city’s tap water was contaminated with lead.

In the months since, the city has reverted its water supply from the contaminated Flint River back to Detroit’s water system, EPA officials treated pipes to prevent corrosion, and federal, state and local officials encouraged residents to flush out the lead-tainted water from their pipes by regularly running their faucets.

Virginia Tech researchers also tested Flint homeowners’ water heaters, not only for high lead levels, but also for other contaminants, including the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. They announced Thursday that bacteria levels are normal, and there is no need for concern.

Even with the positive results, Edwards said Flint and the entire country has a long way to go. A USA Today report found excessive lead levels in nearly 2,000 water systems in all 50 states.

Many buildings and homes still have lead pipes, which health officials say need to be replaced, but that will take time.

“It might very well, across the country, take 100 years before we get all the lead plumbing out,” said Edwards.

Edwards said in the next six months, Flint should see dramatic improvements. He added that he hopes Flint can be used as a test case for how the country can address lead contamination on a larger scale.

On Sunday, a federal state of emergency will end in Flint and the state will take over the costs of providing bottled water to residents.

READ MORE: New CDC data exposes scope of Flint water crisis, lead exposure