The EPA Says Flint’s Water is Safe — Scientists Aren’t So Sure

September 10, 2019
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More than five years after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began, many residents still don’t know if they can trust the water coming out of their taps.

In April 2018, then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration told them they could, noting that lead levels in the city’s water supply hadn’t exceeded federal limits in nearly two years. That month, the state stopped distributing free bottled water — which it had provided since January 2016 — to Flint residents.

This past June, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler declared that Flint’s water was “safe to drink.” Last week, an EPA spokesperson reaffirmed that to FRONTLINE, saying that the drinking water “currently meets all health-based standards.”

But Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, has dismissed such declarations as “premature.”

“Nobody wants to say that Flint water is safe to drink more than myself and the residents of Flint, but, before we say it, we want to be absolutely sure it is true,” she said in June in response to Wheeler’s comments. A spokesperson for the mayor told FRONTLINE that Weaver stands by her stance.

Though Flint’s water, which once tested dangerously high for lead, is now within federal safety standards, microbiologists, infectious disease experts and officials including Weaver worry that harmful elements may still remain — and that state and federal regulators aren’t actively testing for them.

When Flint’s water was switched to a new source — the Flint River — in 2014, the state didn’t require the local water treatment plant to protect the city’s water pipes from corrosion. Those damaged pipes allowed lead to seep into the water — and became a breeding ground for bacteria that are otherwise kept in check, including legionella, which causes Legionnaires’ disease — a severe and potentially fatal form of pneumonia. At least 12 people died from the disease in the area in 2014 and 2015, though, as FRONTLINE has reported, the toll is likely far higher.

The city stopped using the Flint River in late 2015, and work has begun to replace the damaged pipes. But until they are all replaced, the mayor and the current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are steering residents towards bottled water.

“What I will say is that until all the pipes are replaced, we’ve got to make sure that people have clean water to drink,” Whitmer said earlier this year.

Although the city says it is now maintaining sufficient levels of residual chlorine a chemical additive used to control growth of bacteria in the water supply those responsible for Flint’s water have yet to implement any new testing standards or policies governing legionella in the city’s water supply.

Across the U.S. right now, almost all fatalities from waterborne diseases in the United States are from legionella, and cases have been rising steadily since 2000, according to Mark LeChevallier, a scientist and retired water manager. Legionella testing isn’t common. But LeChevallier, who oversaw more than 300 water systems that served more than 15 million people for private utility American water, believes both state and federal bodies, including the EPA, are responsible for putting new guidelines in place.

“There are a lot of opportunities to do better here,” he said. “Knowing what to do is easy. Getting it done is something else.”

As in other cities, Flint’s Department of Water Services is responsible for tracking the chemical composition of the city’s water. But under both state and federal Safe Drinking Water Acts, government responsibility ends the moment water enters the pipes of a private home — where experts say deadly legionella bacteria are most likely to fester.

According to epidemiologists and microbiologists, without access, accountability and peer-reviewed science, it will be difficult to prove to Flint residents their water is safe.

“We don’t know if it’s safe, because the proper studies haven’t been done,” said Marcus Zervos, an infectious disease doctor who sat on the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP), a group hired by the state in 2016 to investigate the Legionnaires’ outbreak. That fall, the team tested the water of 188 randomly selected Flint-area households and found legionella in 12 percent of them.

The state ultimately rejected the team’s work, saying the scientists had “only added to the public confusion,” and that an outside consulting firm the state hired had been critical of their work.

Zervos continued working on water issues in Flint. In 2018, a team including Zervos tested water filters from 10 Flint residents’ homes that they suspected were infected. The results, published early this year in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, announced that they had found toxic, often antibiotic-resistant bacteria in some filters.

“By us saying that the filters potentially have a problem with them, we were also getting push back [from the state],” Zervos told FRONTLINE. “There are people going around that are saying that it’s normal to have bacteria in the water and that the filters are the solution to this. There are still a lot of questions.”

One of his FACHEP colleagues, University of Michigan professor Nancy Love, said that while the filters distributed in Flint are efficient at removing lead, research suggests they can also harbor harmful bacteria. “Whether the level of those bacteria that end up in filtered water, consumed over long periods of time, is a health risk has, to my knowledge, not been evaluated,” Love said.

Another problem, she said, is that emphasizing filters as the only barrier between safe and unsafe water pushes all maintenance and treatment responsibility onto residents.

As part of federal oversight imposed in the wake of the water crisis, the EPA is providing Flint with technical help on maintaining residual chlorine and has helped the city and state develop a flushing program for stagnant water. It also co-funded a study on legionella management that recommended new national guidelines for testing for the bacteria, a suggestion it is currently considering.

In June 2018, Michigan passed new rules that contain the strictest lead standards in the nation, and Flint recently started a multi-million-dollar pipe replacement program that has already replaced more than 9,200 lead service lines. But between replacement disruptions and water main breaks, as well as a recent sewage spill, city residents are still struggling under boil water advisories and the knowledge the city’s pipes may be contaminated for years to come.

Weaver said she won’t be convinced that the city’s water is safe until all the pipes are replaced, and the medical and scientific communities reach that consensus “after a period of testing over time.”

“We are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of any more mistakes,” she said. “We will not be pushed or rushed into drinking the water.”

Additional reporting by Abby Ellis, Kayla Ruble, Jacob Carah and Sarah Childress

[Correction: This story has been updated to accurately describe the 2018 study on water filters.]

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