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 Post subject: more on flint water from american scientist
PostPosted: Tue Jan 10, 2017 2:07 am 
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Joined: Fri Apr 04, 2008 10:48 am
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Location: Broomfield, Colorado
American Scientist January-February 2017
Perspective
The Hand-in-Hand Spread of Mistrust and Misinformation in Flint
A follow-up to a previous American Scientist. The author, Siddhartha Roy, is a colleague of Marc Edwards. Roy’s take is different from Edwards’ in some areas, and I’m not quite sure which one to believe.

  • Roy explicitly says it was the State-appointed emergency manager for Flint who “decided” to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River. This has been implied in some other reports I’ve read but never explicitly stated. My previous understanding of the situation was
    (1) Flint announced it would build a pipeline to Lake Huron for water. Its previous water supplier was the City of Detroit. The Flint River was always the backup water supply in case Detroit couldn’t supply water. Flint apparently expected Detroit to continue supplying water until the Lake Huron pipeline was completed; Detroit apparently discontinued water supply to Flint as soon as Flint announced it would build a pipeline. The question is if this narrative is correct, or did the Flint emergency manager order the water switch.

    (2) A lot of comment suggests the Flint River was the source of lead; this isn’t the case, Flint River water meets EPA drinking water standards. However Flint River water has a high chloride ion concentration. Cursory Googling didn’t find what that chloride ion concentration actually is, but there were notes that it is “eight times” the Detroit water concentration. The EPA has a drinking water standard for chloride ion (250mg/l) but it’s a “secondary standard”, meaning that it is not protective of health but of taste or staining or some other water property.

    (3) But in any case the chloride ion concentration was not the direct problem. Instead Flint, like many older American cities, has lead plumbing for water. I don’t think any of the main distribution lines – i.e., pipe owned by the city of Flint – were lead, instead the lead pipes were found inside homes.

    (4) Over the years, lead pipe (or, for that matter, almost any water pipe) will acquire an internal mineral coating, usually calcium carbonate (“lime”). In fact the lime deposition can become so severe that it actually blocks the pipes. However, it also protects the pipe material from corrosion (which is why you can use iron or steel pipe in a water supply system – they won’t rust away from the inside because of the lime coating.

    (5) But the high chloride concentration of Flint River water did attack the lime coating, and then the metallic pipe underneath. If that pipe happened to lead, lead would leach into the water. Which (among other things) is what happened in Flint.
  • Roy’s article then notes “the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) did not initiate federally-required corrosion treatment”. Again, this is a little different from what I have heard elsewhere and perhaps misleading. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires the EPA to write regulations for drinking water suppliers (which are almost always municipalities). The drinking water supplier is responsible for compliance (this is one of those “unfunded federal mandates”). Thus, it should have been the city of Flint that bore responsibility. I’m not sure what the bankruptcy provisions were; did the State agree to take over SDWA compliance? The “federal-required corrosion treatment” statement is also interesting; AFAIK there is no regulation explicitly requiring corrosion treatment (I caution I’ve been out of the field for a while and thus there may be new regulations I’m not aware of). What is required is the provision of water that meets SDWA standards; possibly the only way to do that is by corrosion treatment; thus it could be implied that corrosion treatment is “federally required”. Not sure.
  • Roy then notes that the MDEQ “cheated on water tests, was hostile to outside researchers, and betrayed the public’s trust…” Roy does not say how the MDEQ cheated on water tests (and AFAIK the MDEQ is not supposed to be testing water in the first place; it’s supposed to be Flint’s job). However he does say other cities have been caught cheating on water tests by “…for example, flushing the pipes the night before…”; he cites New York and Philadelphia as examples.
  • Then Roy rounds on the USEPA, which reportedly had knowledge of the problem for seven months and “silenced” its own whistleblower. Again, this is somewhat different from other reports I’ve read; these implied the EPA had attempted to work with the MDEQ out of the public eye –unsuccessfully – before taking action. Again, not sure.
  • Now Roy gets back to another problem which I previously was unaware of (I’d actually run into it myself, I just wasn’t aware it was occurring in Flint). Most water suppliers in the US treat water with chlorine as an antimicrobial (note that’s chlorine, not chloride. Unlike chloride ion, dissolved chlorine will not react with a lime coating on pipe interiors. However, it will react with exposed lead or iron. That, in turn, affects “residual chlorine”. The water treatment plant adds a little more chlorine than it expects will be necessary to deal with microbial issues. That means the water that comes out of the household tap should have trace but detectable chlorine levels – residual chlorine. If there is no residual chlorine, something has reacted with it (in the case I dealt with, there was a dead-end pipe that had been capped off when the building it fed was demolished. The stagnant water in that pipe began developing a pretty impressive population of iron bacteria, which gradually began spreading backwards into the active pipe – where they immediately sucked up the residual chlorine. There was no harm done, other than the tap water tasting a little musty, but technicians from Denver Water noted there was absolutely no chlorine residual in the tap water, looked at some old plans, found the dead-end line, flushed it (it ran bright orange for ten minutes) and put it on a regular flush schedule. The problem in Flint was similar but more serious – fatally serious, according to Roy. The metal surfaces now exposed by chloride ion corrosion of pipe coatings now reacted with residual chlorine. That (according to Roy) lead to twelve deaths from Legionnaire’s Disease; there was no residual chlorine left to deal with microbials in little stagnant water pockets.
  • Roy then points out something we’re all familiar with – and which is the main point of the article. Flint residents no longer trust their government, including government scientific authorities, and began looking elsewhere for information. Like the Internet. Roy notes YouTube videos where the video producer had got ahold of a Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) meter and was using it to claim the Flint water – and even bottled water distributed to Flint residents – was still unsafe. TDS meters just measure the electrical conductivity of water but the YouTube videos were claiming any TDS reading meant the water was unsafe. A second group of players then got into the act; actor Mark Ruffalo hooked up with an entrepreneur marketing a sponge that Flint residents were supposed to throw in some tap water then send in to be tested. The sponge was not tested for lead, but for “disinfection byproducts (DBPs)”; these are what results when chlorine reacts with organic material – i.e., when chlorine does what it’s supposed to do. DBPs, therefore, are “chlorinated organic compounds”, and some chlorinated organic compounds are carcinogenic; however it’s pretty clear that trace amounts of DBPs are less of a risk than (for example) Legionnaire’s Disease. Roy notes Ruffalo claimed (on CNN) that the DBPs were coming from corroded pipes in Flint, which is chemically impossible; Roy also notes that DBP testing is much more involved that squeezing water out of sponge that somebody has dunked in their bathtub and suggests DBPs could occur in the sponge itself. However the publicity about DBPs has apparently lead many Flint residents to stop showering or bathing – except in bottled water. Edwards and Roy report they attempted unsuccessfully to reason with Ruffalo’s group, and eventually called them out publically.

Roy’s overall conclusion from this is something we already knew; once an entity, government or private, loses public trust it’s extremely difficult to get it back. I wish, though, that his description of the Flint situation agreed with some of the others I’ve read – I’m not sure who to trust.


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