Investigating the Flint Water Crisis

Investigating the Flint Water Crisis

By Archana Apte, Communications and Project Assistant
Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab
March 5, 2019

Health crises can arise from improper water treatment.  J-WAFS is deeply invested in addressing the health challenges associated with poor water quality, with several funded projects that address the issue, from E. coli test kits to low-cost water filters.  Others at MIT and across the region are also devoted to solving these challenges.  The MIT Water Club recently brought a researcher at the University of Rhode Island to present at their monthly Lunch & Learn series on February 14th to discuss his efforts to address one of the highest profile water quality crises in recent years that occurred in Flint, Michigan.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis began in 2014.  While water contaminant levels have by now met federal guidelines, a Flint congressman recently reported that the crisis is still ongoing because all of the lead pipies haven't been fully replaced.  The crisis is often understood as an issue that resulted from lead contamination of the city’s drinking water.  However, while lead posed a health risk to Flint residents, part of the hazard was also attributed to a class of chemicals known as trihalomethanes, or THMs.  The event featured JoJoseph Goodwillseph Goodwill, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island, who discussed the media misrepresentation of THM contamination in Flint, and his lab’s efforts to clarify this through a follow-up study.  Goodwill’s research team was able to prove that THMs were not present in Flint water at harmful levels, which differed from media claims based off a previous study.  The disconnection between the originally reported information and Goodwill’s study highlighted the need for transparency and technical fluency in media discussions of public health issues, a central point of his talk.

Goodwill opened the presentation with a brief history of the crisis.  The city of Flint, Michigan previously sourced water from Lake Huron via the Detroit Water Department.  In 2014, the city decided to switch water departments to cut on water costs; until the new department could be built, the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.  However, the city did not provide the additional water treatment necessary to prevent the corrosion of city and household pipelines.  Thus, the Flint River water corroded city pipes, which leached a variety of chemicals, including lead, into residents’ water.

While much of the public health outcry concerned unsafe lead levels, there was also concern about trihalomethanes, or THMs.  THMs are a byproduct of chlorination of water supplies.  Repeated exposure can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system damage, as well as increased cancer risk.  In February, 2016, Water Defense, a nonprofit organization headed by actor Mark Ruffalo, found unsafe levels of THMs in Flint water.  The ensuing media coverage warned Flint residents of unsafe drinking water, resulting from lead, other metals, and THMs.  However, according to Goodwill, Water Defense’s scientific practices, including the use of hot water and samples soaked in sponges, compromised the integrity of their THM research.

Goodwill and his team conducted a study of THMs in Flint, Michigan, a few months later.  The team found that THMs were below the regulatory limit for all samples and presented their findings in June, 2016.  Goodwill thought that concerns about THMs would subside soon after.  But in October, 2016, the media increased coverage of the poor hygiene practices in Flint resulting from the Water Defense study and other studies.  So, Goodwill and his team further substantiated their research with a literature review, a historical analysis of Flint water, a calculation of THM cancer risk, and a geographical analysis of comparable water supply systems.  Their analysis further disproved that THMs posed a health risk to Flint residents.  In 2018, Water Defense apologized for their misleading THM research.  

At the end of his talk, Goodwill suggested that scientists and engineers should be trained to effectively discuss their research with communications specialists, who in turn should receive more technical training when covering scientific issues.  Strong collaborative efforts by researchers and media officials could ensure that issues such as the Flint water crisis are responded to effectively.


Pictured: Joseph Goodwill, assistant professor, The University of Rhode Island Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (Photo credit:



Trihalomethanes in Drinking-water, WHO, 2005.