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Team testing Flint water for lead sample by sample

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

By the end of this week, a team at Virginia Tech University may complete testing of water samples from 300 Flint homes. Preliminary tests have shown “serious” levels of lead in city water.

Professor Marc Edwards is a MacArthur fellowwho has spent decades analyzing lead in municipal water supplies. 

In the early 2000’s, his testing of Washington D.C.'s water supply showed very high lead levels and numerous cases of lead poisoning among children in the capital city.

It was a case of a child exposed to high lead levels that brought him to Flint.

“The levels that we have seen in Flint are some of the worst that I have seen in more than 25 years working in the field,” says Edwards.

Edwards blames a high “corrosiveness” in the water the city gets from the Flint River. He suggests the Flint River water is affecting lead pipes and lead solder.  

The Virginia Tech tests have shown lead levels as high as 15 parts per billion. Edwards is urging young children and pregnant women not to drink Flint water.

But state officials are questioning the Virginia Tech findings.

“The samples don’t match the testing that we’ve been doing in the same kind of neighborhoods all over the city for the past year,” says Brad Wurfel, a state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman.

Wurfel says DEQ has conducted two rounds of testing in the past year. He adds that the Department of Community Health conducts its own blood level lead testing in Flint.

“With these kind of numbers,” Wurfel says, “we would have expected to be seeing a spike somewhere else in the other lead monitoring that goes on in the community.”

Siddhartha Roy is a PhD student at Virginia Tech and one of the researchers conducting the tests of Flint’s water supply.

He says researchers doing just lab work can be cut off from the people whose lives are affected by their studies. But in this case, Roy and other researchers have worked closely with people in Flint, sometimes advising them that their tap water contains high levels of lead. 

“When they tell you their problems, it’s hard,” says Roy. “You’re listening to their health problems. You’re listening to their struggles … so it’s an emotional journey.”

That journey will continue.

The Virginia Tech team expects to return to Flint to collect more samples. 

The ultimate long-term solution to the problem is likely a new water supply.

City officials point to the KWA pipeline being built from Lake Huron. But water won’t start flowing through the KWA until sometime in 2016.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards says Flint should return to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.  He says it would take a month for the new water source to flush Flint’s water system clean.

Flint city officials have long said it’s too expensive for the city to return to the DWSD.   

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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