Safe Water Check: U-M, MSU, Wayne State researchers testing water and filters

Three universities have teamed up to test Flint residents’ water and filters and replace filter cartridges. Photo by Paul Engstrom
Three universities have teamed up to test Flint residents’ water and filters and replace filter cartridges. Photo by Paul Engstrom

You can never be too sure. That seems to be a common reaction among Flint residents concerned about the safety and quality of the city’s water system.

Although federal, state and independent health officials have said everyone in Flint can drink the city’s tap water as long as they are properly using a NSF-verified filter, additional assurances are welcome.

“I’m not bothered by too many tests of my water supply,” says one Flint resident. “I welcome additional testing. Come in all you want. Come in every day if you need to.”

Researchers from Wayne State University, University of Michigan and Michigan State University are visiting residents’ homes in Flint to test their water and filters, and replacing filter cartridges.

The teams are conducting a study to determine the best ways to make certain the filters Flint residents are using do their job properly. They are testing heavy metals, microorganisms, and the total trihalomethanes (TTHM), and concentrations of bromodichloromethane, bromoform, dibromochloromethane and chloroform, which are commonly found in chlorinated drinking water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set standards for allowable levels of these disinfectant chemicals and their by-products based on their potential to cause cancer and other health effects.

"We’re not finding any TTHM from the filters, which is really positive.” - Susan Masten, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University. Photo courtesy: MSU
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University Susan Masten reports that the researchers are  not finding any TTHM from the filters studied. Photo courtesy MSU

They have visited about 20 homes so far and initial samples show the filters seem to be working properly. But Susan Masten, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan State University, says it’s too early to report findings.

“We’re focusing on lead, copper and measuring trihalomethanes. We’re not finding any TTHM from the filters, which is really positive,” she says. “The concentrations are well below our detection limits.”

Flint residents’ homes were selected from lists of residents who were willing to allow sampling in their homes.

“After we make an initial visit to sample and replace the filter cartridge, we come back two weeks later to replace the filter,” says Olson. “It has been our experience that the filters installed by residents appear to be correctly installed. However, we have a limited number of observations.”

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Additional testing and oversight is helping to provide a greater sense of security about the safety of household water.

Most manufacturers recommend replacing filters after they have processed about 100 gallons of water. One aspect of the research study is to determine if that schedule is best for Flint’s municipal water, which is supplied through Detroit’s water system.

“As part of our study, we hope to establish some guidelines for replacing the filters and will share that with residents,” Olson says.

Students from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan are collecting the samples needed for the research project. The project is the brainchild of Shawn McElmurry, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State, who invited Masten, Nancy Love, a University of Michigan professor of civil and environmental engineering, and other researchers to join him in conducting the research.

The project is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, and is coordinated with support from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Flint Mayor’s office, and the Genesee County Health Department.

Once data is collected, homeowners will receive a written report of the findings, Masten says.

There has been some concern among activists and some residents who wonder if people understand how to properly install and use the filters and the need to have them regularly changed. A federal lawsuit has been filed to determine if government officials should pay to have the filters regularly inspected and changed. A decision is still pending in the case heard in September in the United States District Court—Eastern District in Detroit.

“If there are any concerns, we’re providing industry standard recommendations for how they should deal with that situation,” Masten says. “We’re working with a number of public health officials, but the first person we’ll inform is the homeowner.”

Samples are expected to be collected at least through the end of September 2017, in part because the peak concentration of certain bacteria tends to be higher in late summer when it’s warmest, she says.

“We want to make sure the water is being tested during those peak periods,” Masten says.

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