By Nic Custer
Flint residents are being asked to run cold water through their systems daily for two weeks starting Sunday, May 1.
The goal is to push out lead trapped in the system by getting a higher velocity of water running through the water pipes, especially in interior plumbing, according to Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Acting Administrator Robert Kaplan.
Kaplan explained the situation and the flushing protocol at UM–Flint’s Earth Day celebration. He emphasized that the EPA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), city of Flint officials and Marc Edwards’ team from Virginia Tech all agree that the process is needed and all are recommending it.
Marc Edwards was not at the Earth Day event, but was represented by one of his students. The MDEQ sent George Krisztian, MDEQ lab director and Flint action plan coordinator.
No charge to residents for flushed water
The water will be credited back to the users’ bill and there will be no charge for the two-week process, Kaplan said.
He said bathtubs should be first run for five minutes and then cold water should be run in kitchen sinks for an additional five minutes with the filter disconnected.
“We understand there is a financial cost to all that and we need folks to actually undertake the protocol and help themselves reduce the lead so… the state of Michigan and the city of Flint… have agreed that water that is used to do that flushing protocol is going to be without cost to residents,” Kaplan said.
Residential tests show the chemicals used for corrosion control, called orthophosphates, are working and restoring the pipes’ protective coating, he said.
The orthophosphate levels found at the faucet are rising and not getting blocked by the corrosion in the pipes. He said small lead particles are still spiking in the system but the filters work even for high levels of lead. Although filters are typically thought to remain effective up to around 150 ppb (parts per billion), the EPA is finding the filters work far above that level. Kaplan showed test results from a home where the amount of lead was 4,000 ppb but the filter was able to reduce that amount to 1 ppb.
He said one percent of Flint homes are testing above 150 ppb. He said the average for houses in Flint is 47.1 ppb and filters reduce that to 0.23 ppb. By comparison, the standard for bottled water is 5 ppb.
Kaplan said testing has shown there is little difference in the effectiveness between new and old filters, although he said filters should be changed regularly.
Three types of testing underway
Krisztian of the MDEQ said there have been three types of testing used so far, including residential, schools and a bi-weekly “sentinel” program in which lead in 600 homes is being regularly measured.
So far 19,000 residential samples have been analyzed. He said a city Flint’s size is only required to analyze 60 samples over six months.
Working with the Flint Community School district, officials have taken 3,000 water samples and replaced fixtures such as fountains. He said the replacement program has been expanded to replace fixtures at private, charter and parochial schools.
The “sentinel” program has accomplished five rounds of testing so far.
Of 19,000 residential samples taken so far, 92% were at or below 15 ppb, the action level required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Krisztian said there are two kinds of lead that are a problem in the water currently. Soluble lead, which dissolves in water, is dropping as a result of the orthophosphate layer building up on the pipes.
He said the system is not stable yet though, and there are random releases of the second type, particulate lead, causing lead to spike.
Keep using filters, officials say
He cautioned even if residents’ samples have been nondetectable for lead, they still need to use filters to make sure they aren’t consuming particulate matter.
He said flushing will reduce both of these types of lead and said similar flushing already occurring in Flint Community Schools reduced their lead levels.
Kaplan said Flint went from the worst sampled city in the country to the best, thanks to all the various government and independent groups testing the water.
“We have by far the most complete data set with regard to lead and other constituents and the water in this system than for any other system in the country,” he said.
Kaplan also said if residents are experiencing rashes or bathing issues, they should call 2-1-1. EPA will then send a team out to analyze the home’s water for hundreds of potential contaminants including heavy metals and chemicals.
The list was recently expanded to “leave no stone unturned,” he said, and to consider anything possible which could be contributing to skin issues. He said EPA officials take residents’ concerns very seriously and want to make sure they address them.
In addition to the requested residential flushing, a second kind of flushing will add chlorine to the dead ends in the system to kill dangerous bacteria and pathogens in the system like Legionella that thrive in summer months.
He said this is done by installing flushing devices on 15 hydrants around town which run on a timer and move water through the system to make sure the water is refreshed and the chlorine levels high enough to protect water quality.
EPA established a blue ribbon commission with independent academics and experts to evaluate and test all of the methods employed to make sure they can answer all questions about the drinking water and bathing water quality.
Steve Branch, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the city’s goal is to replace lead and galvanized pipes and fix main breaks, which are leaking water. Branch said city officials don’t believe copper pipes need to be replaced.