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Reckhow Widely Quoted on Water Problems in Michigan

Dave Reckhow

Dave Reckhow

David Reckhow, civil and environmental engineering, and other scientists this week refuted claims by actor Mark Ruffalo that water in Flint, Michigan, is unsafe for bathing. “The news is pretty good when it comes to disinfection byproducts—they’re really not all that high,” Reckhow said at a May 31 press conference in Flint. Reckhow and other scientists found the level of byproducts to be comparable to amounts found in other cities. Read Huffington Post, Huron Daily Tribune, and AP articles.

In a widely distributed Associated Press wire report covering the May 31 press conference, Reckhow and scientists from Virginia Tech and Wayne State University discussed the safety of using the city’s water for bathing and showering. Reckhow analyzed the level of disinfectant byproducts in the water, saying, “There’s nothing out of the ordinary from what we see.” The testing was conducted after an advocacy group started by Ruffalo questioned the safety of the disinfectant byproducts.

According to the Huffington Post article, “Water Defense, a nonprofit Ruffalo founded that usually focuses on groundwater contamination, came to Flint in January and said it had detected dangerous levels of disinfection byproducts in Flint bathtubs — chemicals the group claimed the government had missed because it was overly focused on lead. (The government does, in fact, require water systems to test for disinfection byproducts like chloroform.)” 

Reckhow is the director of the UMass Amherst Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS), which develops and tests advanced, low-cost methods to reduce, control, and eliminate groups of water contaminants that present challenges to communities across the U.S. and worldwide. WINSSS was founded in 2014 with a $4.1-million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a national center for research aimed at assisting small-sized drinking water systems.

The Huffinton Post said that unfiltered tap water in Flint is still unsafe for drinking, but the team of researchers could find no scientific reason not to use it for bathing.

“Citing his own research, actor Mark Ruffalo has said Flint residents shouldn’t trust earlier government assurances that the water is safe for washing because of chemicals like chloroform, which is a byproduct of chlorine disinfection,” the Huffinton Post article explained. 

Reckhow joined Wayne State University’s Shawn McElmurry and Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards and Amy Pruden in Flint to publicize their analysis of water samples their teams had recently taken from local homes.

“Yet the water still has too much lead, a deadly neurotoxin used in water pipes in Flint and hundreds of other American cities,” the Huffinton Post article said. “When Flint changed its water source from Detroit to the Flint River in 2014, it failed to treat the new water to prevent it from corroding the pipes, resulting in more lead in the water and in Flint children’s bodies. Lead exposure at a young age can cause permanent brain damage and lifelong behavioral problems, though exposure hasn’t been associated with skin problems.” 

The Huffinton Post article noted that Water Defense’s Scott Smith claimed the WaterBug, a sponge product he invented using his own proprietary foam technology, could better detect the contaminants in Flint’s water.

However, Reckhow said that WaterBugs were “not vetted at all” prior to their introduction in Flint, according to the Huffinton Post article,  and also questioned Water Defense’s sampling methods, saying the contaminants detected by WaterBugs could have come from household air rather than water.

“In order to do due diligence as a scientist, you really need to have a control,” Reckhow said in the Huffinton Post, adding that the nonprofit should have devoted a separate sponge to test the air. (June 2016)