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Water experts say non-profit group's Flint water test lacks credibility

Dave Reckhow is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Dave Reckhow is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He says there's nothing unusual about the levels of disinfection by-products in Flint's water.

Flint’s water is still not safe to drink without a filter.

A lot of people have been asking whether the water is safe for bathing. Federal and state agencies say it is.

But people are worried about rashes they’ve been getting even after Flint switched back to Detroit water last October. Federal experts are looking into that (the results aren't in yet).

In the meantime, a group called Water Defense came to Flint and started doing its own testing. It’s a nonprofit launched by actor Mark Ruffalo.

In a YouTube video Water Defense says it filmed in Flint this January, the group's chief technology officer and investigator Scott Smith pulled a green foam thing with tentacles out of a jar, placed it in the hotel bathtub, and let it soak.

“This is the Water Defense WaterBug we are going to use to mimic the way we all encounter water,” he says in the video.

You can watch him demonstrate the WaterBug here:

The group also took grab samples at the same time: filling up a test bottle with water from the tap.

In February, Water Defense announced they found dangerous levels of chemicals in bathtubs and showers in Flint. They focused mainly on disinfection by-products: compounds that form in water when you add chlorine to it for disinfection.

People got worried about that, and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards says his team took those concerns seriously.

“And we launched at Virginia Tech, in collaboration with a partner at the University of Massachusetts, an unprecedented third party evaluation of disinfection by-products in Flint, both hot and cold water,” he says.

The researchers announced their findings at a press conference last week. You can see the details on Virginia Tech's Flint Water Study page.

University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Dave Reckhow is an expert on disinfection by-products in water. At the press conference, he said the levels of the nine regulated disinfection by-products they've tested in Flint water are normal.

“Our conclusions are none of the regulated DPBs exceed federal standards and in fact, they’re not really all that high on a national basis; they’re pretty average I would say,” he says.

He says they’re also studying about 60 other unregulated disinfection by-products in Flint water. He says they’ll have those results soon.

An unvetted testing method

Reckhow says the grab sample method Water Defense is using is fine. But he says the foam WaterBug has not been vetted at all.

"... in order to do due diligence as a scientist, you really need to have a control."

“And so in order to do due diligence as a scientist, you really need to have a control. And the reason why is, if you don’t, you don’t know where the contaminants you might be picking up came from. And so with WaterBug, it may be picking up some contaminants from the water, but it may as well be picking up other contaminants from the air in the homes,” says Reckhow.

Scott Smith admits they did not use controls in the homes and hotels they sampled. So he says it’s possible WaterBug could be picking up chemicals from indoor air.

“Obviously there’s a lot of variables, that may be possible. We haven’t seen that at this point,” Smith says.

Smith argues the WaterBug technology is the only thing that can mimic longer term exposure to water.

“Instead of taking my hand or arm, or your arm, and putting it in a bathtub or shower for 20 minutes and cutting away a piece of skin, we are trying to develop a new method using certain EPA protocols for testing to mimic the way humans encounter shower and bath water,” says Smith.

But both Marc Edwards and Dave Reckhow say that’s just completely false.

“There’s no substitute for the standard methods that are used that have been vetted by scientists for years and years," says Reckhow. "And that is to take grab samples of the water, sealed and ship them to a laboratory.”

Reckhow says you can just take a series of grab samples over time to mimic changes in concentrations of various exposures over time in a shower.

Water Defense's Scott Smith says he wants to see detailed lab reports from all the parties testing Flint's water. Reckhow says it would be useful to compare data taken with the standard grab sample method - but not data collected with the WaterBug.

Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards says he understands that people in Flint are wary of their water.  

“Obviously, if you are experiencing rashes or breathing difficulties, we do not discount those at all. But if you have not been having problems, there’s no reason to think that Flint water is currently less safe than any other city in the United States when it comes to bathing or showering,” he says.

He says Flint is now the best monitored water system in the country.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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