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Lead flakes in Flint water like a game of Russian roulette

Listen to today's Environment Report.

It’s been almost four months since Flint went back to buying water from Detroit’s water system.

Here’s the good news: Since January, more than 90 percent of water tests have come back below the federal action level for lead of 15 parts per billion.

But there are still some insanely high lead levels in some homes. Take a look at a map of where those are, and you'll see there’s no pattern.

Why one test result of zero might not mean a resident is safe from lead exposure

“It becomes almost a Russian roulette-type thing,” says Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech.  

Edwards is the researcher who’s working with the state to help resolve Flint’s water crisis.

“You might have samples that you collected from your house that were zero," Edwards says. "And you would be wrong to think you’re protected from lead in water because you’ve previously tested at zero, because until corrosion control is effective, there’s a chance a piece of this lead will fall into your water.”

Edwards says the opposite is also true: a home that tests really high right now could have a lower test result the next time. 

Remember, the protective coating inside of pipes has been eaten away throughout the city because the water wasn’t treated properly. What that means is that little pieces of lead are flaking off pipes throughout the system.

It will take time for the orthophosphate corrosion control the city is now using to re-coat pipes.

So if a piece of lead makes its way to someone's house, the resident could wind up with a situation like Lela Lovelace.

Hazardous waste levels

Lela Lovelace with two of her daughters, Nadine Hopkins on the right and Sheila Hopkins on the left.
Credit Lindsey Smith/Michigan Radio
Lela Lovelace with two of her daughters, Nadine Hopkins on the right and Sheila Hopkins on the left.

A couple of weeks ago, Lovelace was picking up a case of bottled water at one of the fire stations in Flint. They had free water tests too, so she picked one up. It’s a good thing she did.

Her water test came back with more than 6,000 parts per billion of lead.

Lovelace says an official with the health department showed up at her door about a week ago to share her shocking test results.

“They told me: don’t bathe in it, which I wasn’t anyway,” Lovelace said.

Any lead level above 5,000 parts per billion the U.S. EPA considers hazardous waste.

Luckily, Lovelace hasn’t had any health problems related to the water, she said. But she hasn't been drinking the water either, not for a couple of years. She takes a shower at one of her daughter’s houses twice a week.

“Here, I get the bottled water and put it in a bucket and wash up here,” she says. Lovelace says she doubts she'll trust her tap water will be safe enough to drink, but, says "it would be nice to be able to take a shower in my home."

Lots of people in Flint have been testing their water recently. Lovelace’s lead test is one of the worst to come back so far this year.

A team of people from the EPA paid her a visit yesterday to test her water again.

EPA investigating homes with high lead levels in water

Two members of EPA's emergency response team test Lovelace's water. Meghan Hemken is on the right.
Credit Lindsey Smith/Michigan Radio
Two members of EPA's emergency response team test Lovelace's water. Meghan Hemken is on the right.

Two women from the EPA lug a large blue cooler into Lovelace’s kitchen.

They’re here to take a number of samples to give them a better idea of where the lead is coming from.

In the meantime, Meghan Hemken with the EPA shows Lovelace how to clean out the aerators on her faucets. This is where the lead flakes can get caught.

“What we’re asking residents to do is to take off their filters or the aerators on their faucets about once a week and just to get all this stuff out,” Hemken tells Lovelace, pointing out tiny particles inside her aerator.

How to protect your water from lead particles

EPA's Mark Durno
Credit Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio
EPA's Mark Durno

MarkDurno, the on-scene coordinator with the EPA in Flint, says the agency thinks it's these little particles of lead that are causing the high lead levels in some homes. And he says it can happen anywhere at any time.

"The way we look at this, Flint's water right now is not safe to drink," Durno says. "Even if they get a zero result, we acknowledge the water is not safe to drink until we can show the entire system is recovered. Any particle could enter anyone's drinking water at any time, we recognize that."

He says that can actually happen in any water system around the country that has an aging infrastructure with lead pipes. But he says there's a bigger chance of it happening in Flint right now.

Durno says they recently visited one home in Flint with a lead level of 5,200 parts per billion.

"The homeowner didn't realize he had this filter in his house in the drinking water line. When we pulled it out, it was caked full of lead particles."

So, he says, it's a really good idea to remove a whole house filter if there is one, and clean it off. And to remove the aerators on the faucets and clean those too.

“One of the things that we’re strongly advising of homeowners is anything that can trap particles, flush it routinely, especially during this emergency phase,”Durnosays.

Durno also says people in Flint should run their water first thing in the morning for five to ten minutes. But he says he knows people are worried about how much their water bills cost, so they might be hesitant to let their tap run.

"The cost of water is not cheap these days, but it's one of the things that's going to help the overall system heal itself faster, if we can get the particle-laden water through, and let the orthophosphate coat the pipes."

He says as that orthophosphate corrosion control continues to take effect, the water quality should improve.

Advice on faucet filters

The good news is: the EPA and Marc Edwards say the NSF certified water filters people are attaching to their faucets  do work to remove lead, even at higher levels. 

Edwards and his team have tested the filters to see how well they remove lead, and they've found the filters remove 99.8% of the lead.

"So if you have a hazardous waste type sample, some fraction of that lead can get through, but you're still 99.8% better off than if you did not use the filter," he says.

He says people should replace the filters according to the manufacturer's guidelines, which is usually every three months.

But out of an abundance of caution, the EPA is still saying it's safest for pregnant women and kids under 6 to drink bottled water right now.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

EPA workers take water samples from a Flint home that tested extremely high for lead.
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
EPA workers take water samples from a Flint home that tested extremely high for lead.
A water filter used at a home in Flint.
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A water filter used at a home in Flint.