NEMWI Assists with Resolution of Lead in Drinking Water in Flint, Michigan

The Northeast-Midwest Institute has been assisting in the resolution of a critical water quality issue in Flint, Michigan after high lead levels were recently discovered in drinking water after a change in the city’s drinking water source. NEMWI Senior Policy Analyst Elin Betanzo recognized several similarities between Flint’s lead levels and those discovered in Washington, DC after a major treatment change in the early 2000’s. Now Betanzo, a Southeast Michigan resident, is helping to coordinate and advise efforts to resolve the crisis.

A water sampling study dated Sept. 8, 2015 by Virginia Tech researchers revealed that 40% of 252 first- draw water samples that were collected from homes across the city contained lead levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb), and the 90th percentile value for the system is 25 ppb, well above the federal limit. The study identifies the corrosive chemistry of the Flint River and a lack of corrosion inhibitors as the cause of corrosion in the city’s aging water supply network. While the switch to Flint River water is temporary, health effects associated with lead exposure are irreversible. A health effects study by a Flint pediatrician found an increase of Flint infants and children with elevated levels of lead in their blood after switching to treating water from the Flint River, leading to the city issuing a Lead Advisory for the City of Flint. The City of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality state that the lead levels detected by the Virginia Tech water study are inconsistent with sampling completed for the Lead and Copper Rule, although data obtained by the ACLU of Michigan show a variety of sampling irregularities.

With nearly a decade of experience at the USEPA and three years with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, Betanzo is assisting policy makers with understanding the Lead and Copper Rule and other Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. Living in Michigan herself, Betanzo is able to personally connect experts with government officials to aid collaboration on the crisis. Her knowledge and experience have made her a valuable resource to officials.

The circumstances in Flint, MI and Washington, DC show that changes in source water or treatment can interact with aging infrastructure, resulting in water quality changes with real impacts on public health. Changes in drinking water sources and/or treatment are likely to become more frequent over time as water resources are depleted, degraded, or have changes in availability due to climate change.