Flint Water Crisis: How a Water Study Researcher Would Address the Damage

A member of the Flint Water Study group offers possible responses.

ByABC News
January 19, 2016, 6:52 PM

— -- As two new class action suits were filed against Flint and Michigan state officials, dozens of National Guardsmen are on the ground bringing water to try to alleviate the chaos in the city's ongoing water crisis.

That’s one immediate action, but Siddhartha Roy, a member of the Flint Water Study group -- an independent Virginia Tech team that researched the scientific uncertainties associated with the water -- gave ABC News his take on other possible next steps, short- and long-term.

1. Lead and Copper Sampling

Another short-term response could be more extensive lead and copper sampling in people's homes, Roy said.

While Roy said the MDEQ [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] is offering water testing, he said there must be proper testing done according to the Lead and Copper Rule – a regulation published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1991 to control lead and copper in drinking water.

"MDEQ and the State are offering free testing and many residents are getting their water tested," Roy said. "However, there has to be a proper Lead and Copper Rule sampling round in worst-case homes ... to determine if lead levels have indeed dropped to safe levels."

Roy explained that the tested water is in compliance if the 90th percentile of all the results is below 15 parts per billion.

When Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit supply to the Flint River in the spring of 2014 to save money, it was intended as a temporary measure until a new water line to Lake Huron could be built. But improperly treated water from the Flint River caused lead to leach from the pipes, officials said.

The water supply was changed back to Detroit’s system in October of 2015, but a state spokeswoman said the anti-corrosive chemical being used takes time to work and stop the lead from leaching from the pipes.

Lead levels should be dropping, Roy said, but residents are still using filters and bottled water in the meantime.

"So if the city conducts sampling on the new water source ... and if they found the numbers have indeed gone down, we can say they're safe to drink. Unless that happens, they cannot," he said.

PHOTO: Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips gets a hug from a Flint resident after helping her carry bottled water to her car at a Flint Fire Station on Jan. 13, 2016 in Flint, Mich.
Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips gets a hug from a Flint resident after helping her carry bottled water to her car at a Flint Fire Station on Jan. 13, 2016 in Flint, Mich.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

2. Re-Establishing Trust

The biggest problem Flint residents have right now is the "crisis of confidence," Roy said, because no one trusts their local government.

"People don't trust anything the Governor says or even that the filters are safe. People were never told there was a problem and therefore they couldn't take any action to protect themselves," Roy said. "Eighteen months is a long time to be drinking unsafe water and giving it to your kids."

While Gov. Rick Snyder has insisted he did not initially know of the severity of the water situation, attorneys filing class-action lawsuits on behalf of Flint residents are accusing officials of staying silent.

"They were staring at a public health emergency and they sat on it for ten months," attorney Michael Pitt said.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, was the lead author of a study that found that the incidence of children with elevated lead levels in their blood more than doubled after the water crisis began. Lead is a known neurotoxin in children and Hanna-Attisha said that it could lead to a "lifetime" of consequences, from lower IQ scores to behavioral issues. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in December, helped push the Flint water crisis into the spotlight.

The first thing the government should do, Roy said, is bring in people whom residents can trust, like Hanna-Attisha, whom Roy says residents "trust a lot."

"She stood her ground despite attempts being made by MDEQ to discredit her findings," Roy said.

Roy says everyone whom residents view as trustworthy in this process can explain that officials are now doing their best and testing the water.

So along with getting safer water in the long-term, Roy says the government's focus should be "to do everything in their power to get that trust back."

3. Pipe Replacement

The Flint River water had high levels of chloride and officials weren't practicing corrosion control treatment, Roy said, which primarily caused lead to leach from the pipes into the drinking water.

Roy suggested a long-term goal could be replacing all the corrupted pipes. He estimates that’s a $1.5 billion process.

"This corrosive water was flowing in the pipes for 18 months causing hundreds of water main breaks and leaching lead into the water," Roy said. This sped up the aging of the pipes significantly -- Roy estimated that they aged probably over a decade in 18 months.

"So, long term, they will have to be replaced," he said.

"And lead pipes should be replaced anyway," Roy said. "Because as long as they are in the system, there is a potential for contamination and exposure to tap water drinking families."

The water distribution system is composed of iron mains-- pipes spread out all over the city-- and lead service lines -- pipes connecting iron mains to homes, Roy explained. There is also lead from old home plumbing like lead solder, galvanized iron pipes and brass faucets, Roy said.

What's Already Being Done Now

After the governor and President Obama declared a federal emergency, National Guard troops have been pouring into Flint to pass out water and filters.

State agencies are also investigating a possible connection between the contaminated water and a legionella outbreak in the region.

Class action lawsuits have been filed against state and local officials.

Gov. Snyder is expected to discuss the water crisis tonight in his State of the State address.

ABC News' Gillian Mohney contributed to this report.