LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Flint residents who've grown accustomed to using bottled water and avoiding the faucet are getting new instructions: Turn on the taps.
The conundrum, expert Marc Edwards said Tuesday, is that residents afraid of using the water aren't running enough of it to rid the system of toxic lead. People aren't showering as much, are leery of drinking or cooking with tap water even with faucet filters, and don't want to pay higher bills for water they're not using, despite the state helping to offset rates.
But that's slowing efforts to clean out lead deposits and effectively recoat the pipes and plumbing to make them safe again, said Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the problem in Flint. While lead levels are lower, he said without more water use it could take months or even years to rid the system of contamination.
"We've got to get more water flowing through the system," he said Tuesday in Blacksburg, Virginia.
"Who's going to pay for that?" asked resident Mona Munroe-Younis, whose family is using the tap water but only after installing a filtration machine and softener. She said she hasn't seen a discounted bill yet, though a Flint spokeswoman said the city expects to start mailing statements that detail account credits at the end of the week.
Edwards' team studied homes with persistently high lead levels and discovered water use as low as 20 percent of typical usage. Lead levels from March were lower than when his team tested homes last August, he said, but still exceeded federal limits — which means residents should keep using faucet filters and bottled water.
At the advice of state environmental regulators, Flint went without corrosion controls in its water for 18 months, after the city switched to using the Flint River as a water source to save money while under state financial management. That allowed lead, which has been linked to developmental disabilities in children and other issues, to leach from old pipes. The city has since reconnected to the Detroit area's water system, which uses corrosion chemicals on Lake Huron water, and added additional orthophosphates. But the damaged pipes need the coating.
Edwards said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality could soon announce a plan to boost water use quickly, and there have been discussions about providing water for free for a couple weeks.
That's what needs to happen, said Munroe-Younis, who believes her 4-month-old son's skin problems may be related to bath water.
"They need to just stop billing people for a period of time until they fix it," Munroe-Younis said. "That's the only solution I can think of. They need to figure out how long it would take to build that scale back up. Is that going to take a year? Is that going to take a month?"
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said "there's no telling" when residents will be able to drink straight from the tap without a filter. Edwards said even where testing shows very low lead levels, an "unacceptably high" risk remains that a piece of lead from an underground service line or the inside plumbing could flake off and taint those homes' supply.
"There's a perception — perhaps you could call it an urban legend — that if (people) use less water, they will have less corrosion problems in their house. ... That is simply not the case. From every scientific perspective, the more water that a resident uses, the better the quality of the water is going to be," he said.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's office is studying how to address the cost of flushing Flint's system in order to increase participation by Flint residents, spokesman Ari Adler said.
"We don't have a formal protocol for how or how long to do this yet, but the DEQ, EPA and Virginia Tech teams are working on one," Adler said. "The governor understands the importance of what needs to be done and also the hesitation some Flint residents may have in doing so because of the potential cost."
Weaver reiterated the need for state and federal funding to replace thousands of damaged lead and galvanized pipes that run from water mains into homes. Snyder is seeking $25 million from state lawmakers to replace the lines. A $220 million package is on hold in the U.S. Senate.
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