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State's message on water filters in Flint is changing

People in Flint waiting in line for water filters.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Early on, filters were an important part of the government's response to the Flint water crisis (file photo).

For more than a year, Flint residents have been told to use filters on their taps to screen lead from their drinking water. Filters on kitchen faucets are as much a part of everyday life in Flint as bottled water. Specialized filters were one of the first responses to Flint’s lead tainted tap water crisis.  

However, state officials and others are changing their message on filters.

Even just a few months ago, they were still strongly urging their use.

Now, it’s more of a mild suggestion.

The reason is recent test results showing declines in lead levels in homes seen as most at risk. At the height of the crisis, these homes were testing at rates well above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion for lead in water.

The recent tests are now under 10 parts per billion.

Governor Rick Snyder says Flint’s water is now ‘comparable’ to other communities in Michigan.

The governor's office says Flint residents don't have to use filters, but it would still be a good idea.

Governor Snyder’s top adviser Rich Baird says that’s why the message Flint residents are getting on filters is changing.

"What was a 'the water is still is not good, but the filters work' message…to a message now which is… 'the water is good most of the time,'" says Baird. "You could drink it right out of the tap without fear, the fact is though what about that small percentage of time that there might be that fear and that’s why we’re hammering on the filters."

The governor's office says Flint residents don't have to use filters, but it would still be a good idea, especially in parts of town where aging pipes are being replaced.  

But not everyone is changing their message on filters.

Dr. Lawrence Reynolds is with the Genesee County Medical Society. He says they’re still recommending filters city-wide.

“Hopefully at some point when we see some demonstrated stability over several seasons and water source changes, we’ll be able to say otherwise,” Reynolds says. “But at this point, that position has not changed.”

The state is still distributing filters. On a daily basis, teams are knocking on doors, checking to see if people have filters properly installed.  

George Krisztian heads the program. He says the state’s message on filters may have shifted, but he says his team will continue to make sure people in Flint have working water filters.

“Given the fact that we don’t necessarily know where the construction is taking place. We’re just making the assumption that it’s taking place everywhere,” says Krisztian, “that way we can insure that every resident is safe.”

But some Flint residents are skeptical about claims that the water here is getting safer.   

"We are making such a huge mistake by claiming that things are better and will continue to get better."

Laura Sullivan is a professor at Kettering University. She’s also a member of a special panel overseeing the state’s response to the Flint water crisis. She’s worried that lead levels in Flint water will rise as the weather gets warmer.

“We are making such a huge mistake by claiming that things are better and will continue to get better.   When so much about the status and the condition of the water pipes keeps changing even now,” Sullivan says.

State officials concede they can’t predict if improving test results will continue.

Despite the state's change in tone, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to recommend that people in Flint use filtered water. You can find its current recommendations here

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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