NEMWI Analyst Plays Critical Role in Diagnosing Flint Water Crisis

Northeast-Midwest Institute senior policy analyst Elin Betanzo is playing a critical role in the unfolding drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. A Detroit Free Press news article on February 7 reported Betanzo’s role in encouraging pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha to conduct the study that discovered the toxic levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water.

Betanzo leads the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Toward Sustainable Water Information Initiative, and in that role is conducting a series of studies that assess the availability of water data to inform urgent policy decisions, most recently in the Lake Erie drainage basin and in the Susquehanna River Basin. She is a water engineer with nearly a decade of experience at the Environmental Protection Agency and three years with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission prior to joining the Institute in 2012.

In mid-2015, Betanzo recognized many similarities between the events in Flint and those in Washington, DC when elevated levels were revealed throughout the city in 2004. She convinced a colleague and friend, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, to conduct a study analyzing childhood blood lead levels in Flint children. That study proved that high levels of lead in drinking water was having a dangerous effect on residents of Flint and catapulted the story to national attention.

A resident of Michigan herself, Betanzo continues to advise efforts to resolve the crisis in Flint by connecting researchers on the ground in Flint with Federal and congressional contacts to address the high lead levels. Providing ongoing recommendations to improve the Lead and Copper Rule under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Betanzo is an invaluable resource for officials responding to this crisis.

The circumstances in Flint 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.

The Northeast-Midwest Institute and Betanzo continue to be engaged in ongoing efforts to respond to this drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.