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Researchers say Flint water much improved, city is nearing "the end of the public health crisis"

Zhu “Joyce” Ni, Min Tang, Pan Ji, Mariah Gnegy
Virginia Tech
You see this picture on the left a lot. A new photo (on the right) demonstrates improvements in Flint.

Researchers from Virginia Tech announced the results of their fourth round of water testing in Flint today.

The tests show that lead levels continue to drop, that water disinfection by-products in the water are normal, and that the drinking water in the city continues to improve.

“We’re now approaching the end of the public health crisis,” said Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University.

Edwards says even with the improvements, citizens in Flint should still be protecting themselves.

"No one should be drinking Flint water unless they use a lead filter," he said.

“No one should be drinking Flint water unless they use a lead filter,” he said.

Free water filters and bottled water are still being provided to the citizens in Flint. Edwards says this is being done “out an abundance of caution.”

“So in Flint, lead in water levels are not worse than many other older cities in the country,” he said. “But a high bar has been set in terms of a standard before people are told to drink the water without filters.”

Edwards said it’s very likely that people in the city will never be told the water is safe as long as there are lead water lines in the city. Edwards said the same recommendation will likely spread to other cities in the U.S.

“There’s a scientific consensus emerging that regardless of whether you’re in Flint, or Chicago or Pittsburgh, or any city that has lead pipes – no matter what you’ve been sampling from those pipes – we’re currently starting to recommend … that it’s a hazard. You can never trust the water from those lead pipes.”

Edwards indicated there are several cities that are thinking about recommending citizens use a lead filter on the water faucet.

“This is brand new information that we’ve learned in the aftermath of Flint.”

Here are 5 takeaways from today’s press conference:

Flint’s water has improved drastically since the peak of the crisis in August 2015.

1) Lead levels are dropping in Flint water.

The Virginia Tech research is unique in that it is the only water sample set that gives us a before and after picture in Flint.

Of the original 269 Flint homes sampled in August 2015, 154 participated in the fourth round of testing in November 2016.

Here are the results:

Water samples from the same Flint homes tested in the summer of 2015 show improvement.
Credit Virginia Tech
Water samples from the same Flint homes tested in the summer of 2015 show improvement.

2) The water is safe to shower and bathe in.

Edwards said residents in the city heard about “unscientific testing” that purportedly showed high levels of disinfection by-products in the water that could cause problems when bathing. Edwards said these tests were simply not accurate.

(Read more about who is behind these tests here.)

“The results from all research teams shows Flint water is just as safe as other potable water around the country for bathing or showering,” said Edwards. “The levels of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products are normal in hot and cold Flint water.”

He says if people are experiencing problems bathing in the water, those problems might be justified and should be taken seriously. That's because people can have reaction to a municipal water supply no matter where they live.

Listen to his response below:

2) There is no evidence of Shigella bacteria in Flint water.

Edwards suggested that the Shigella outbreak in Saginaw and Genesee counties could be due to residents’ fear of the water supply, resulting in the use of ineffective methods of disinfection. He recommended that the best way to prevent Shigella contamination is hand-washing.

4) Following up on tests done in June, the researchers did not detect Legionella bacteria in the distribution system water. They attributed this to increased awareness of Legionnaire’s disease, the switch back to treated Detroit water, decreased iron levels in the water (which is a nutrient for the bacteria), as well as the fact that Legionella does not thrive in colder weather.

5) Virginia Tech's tests are not intended to replace federal and state water standard tests. Because their original testing was done through a random sample pool, it does not meet EPA lead and copper rule standards. Those standards call for samples from potential “worst-case scenario” homes – homes known to have lead in the plumbing. Those results are still forthcoming from the state and the EPA.

Edwards said the Virginia Tech team intends to continue to work with the state and the Flint community as needed.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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