Addressing Flint River’s Water Concerns


Flint River’s Concerns

Since the city of Flint, MI began using the Flint River as its source of water in April 2014, council members said they continue to hear complaints from residents about differences in the taste, smell and color of drinking water. The switch to the Flint River as a source of drinking water came after 50 years of the city buying water that comes from Lake Huron, treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

The most vocal outcry against Flint water problems began earlier in January this year, when the city informed customers it was in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act because of the high level of total trihalomethanes (TTHM). At the time of the switch from Lake Huron water to Flint River water, city and state officials assured residents there would not be any difference in the smell or taste of tap water once the river was tapped.

However, citizens began complaining almost immediately about the smell, color and taste of river water. Within 4 months, tests showed bacteria, including E. coli, in the water system boil and water advisories were issued for parts of the city. The city cleared up the bacteria problem by upping the level of disinfectant and implementing other changes.

Flint received another blow when General Motors said it would no longer use the city’s water in one of its plants there because high chloride levels were causing corrosion in engine parts. Despite quality problems, a Flint consultant reported the water is safe to drink and currently meets all state and federal standards.

By mid-2016, the city is expected to start receiving raw water from Lake Huron through the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline that is currently under construction.

What Are Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM)?

To protect drinking water from disease-causing organisms, or pathogens, water suppliers often add a disinfectant, such as chlorine, to drinking water. The major challenge is controlling and limiting the risks from pathogens and disinfection byproducts. The main goal of water suppliers is to provide protection from pathogens, while simultaneously minimizing health risks to the population from disinfection byproducts.

Trihalomethanes occur when naturally-occurring organic and inorganic materials in the water react with the disinfectants, chlorine and chloramine. The EPA regulates the following trihalomethanes:

  • bromodichloromethane (75-27-4)
  • bromoform (75-25-2)
  • dibromochloromethane (124-48-1)
  • chloroform (67-66-3)

People who drink water containing TTHM in excess of the MCL over many years could experience liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer. MCLs for disinfection byproducts are set at the following levels:

How Will Disinfection Byproducts Be Removed from My Drinking Water?

Water systems that use surface water/ground water under the direct influence of surface water and which use conventional filtration treatment are required to remove specified percentages of organic materials. These organic materials may react with disinfectants to form disinfection byproducts, prior to disinfection. Other control strategies include modification of disinfection practices, but this must be done in a manner that still provides adequate protection against pathogens.

Trihalomethane (THM) compounds are the byproducts of decaying vegetation reacting with one of the halogens, which in this case is chlorine. They can be effectively reduced virtually to the point of elimination by passing the water containing the offending THM through activated carbon, either for the entire facility (Point of Entry – POE) or at drinking water faucets (Point of Use – POU).

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