Hollywood star Mark Ruffalo's environmental advocacy group is spreading misinformation about the water in Flint, Michigan, according to a respected scientist who helped expose the city's lead crisis.
Ruffalo and his nonprofit, Water Defense, have been warning Flint residents that their water might be unsafe for bathing. Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards says the data behind these warnings is bunk -- and that the warnings themselves might be hurting public health.
"I have moms calling me saying that because of this group they are not letting their children take baths or wash their hands," Edwards told The Huffington Post on Monday.
Edwards says hand-washing and bathing fears probably contributed to a recent spike in gastrointestinal illness in and around Flint. The Genesee County Health Department last week advised residents to wash their hands to avoid getting sick.
Flint residents have complained that their water causes rashes and hair loss since the water crisis began in April 2014, when the city started pumping water from the Flint River instead of continuing to purchase it from Detroit. Thanks to bad guidance from state regulators, Flint didn't treat the water to prevent it from corroding the city's pipes -- many of which are made from lead, a deadly neurotoxin.
Edwards and a team from Virginia Tech sampled people's tap water last summer and confirmed dangerous amounts of lead were leaching from the pipes -- contrary to official assurances. The government only admitted its mistake after Flint pediatricians, led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, reported high lead levels in children's blood.
Though the city has switched back to Detroit water and improved its treatment regimen, the water still has high lead levels and complaints about rashes have continued. So far, government scientists and independent experts like Edwards haven't figured out how the water could be causing skin problems. The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the rash issue but has maintained the water is safe for bathing.
Ruffalo and his group have been more doubtful, saying there are dangerous chemicals in samples taken from Flint bathrooms and water heaters.
"Where the problem really lies is not the EPA, nor the state of Michigan nor Dr. Mona, nor Marc Edwards can tell the people of Flint it's safe to bathe in that water," Ruffalo said on CNN earlier this month.
Edwards counters that the chemicals present in people’s water heaters are highly regulated and Flint’s water at this point doesn’t have more of the chemicals than water in other cities.
"The DANGEROUS CHEMICAL that Water Defense discovered and has been most concerned with? Chloroform. The same chemical that the EPA and water industry have been addressing for 40 years, and for which we now have standards via the total trihalomethane (TTHM) regulation," Edwards wrote in a Monday blog post, adding that the data show Flint's TTHM levels are good.
Edwards has also tried to debunk Water Defense's claim that showering exposes people to the risk of inhaling aerosolized lead, which Edwards called unfounded. (However, it is certainly possible to inhale dry lead dust.)
Before he started ripping the group on his blog, Edwards tried to get Water Defense to substantiate or retract its alarming statements last month in a series of emails with Scott Smith, Water Defense's chief technology officer and investigator. It didn't work.
"Water Defense came to Flint after a Federal Emergency was declared, and has exploited the fears of traumatized Flint residents, whose unfortunate prior experience taught them to carefully listen to views of outsiders who question authority," Edwards wrote Monday. "Flint residents can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but not everyone who challenges the claims of the EPA, CDC and State of Michigan are automatically correct."
Water Defense hasn't publicly responded to Edwards' criticism since he first trashed them in a May 7 blog post. Smith told HuffPost on Sunday the group would say something within 48 hours.
UPDATE -- May 18: In a Wednesday statement, Water Defense didn't respond directly to Edwards' criticism but did affirm its initial warnings about disinfectant byproducts in Flint's water.
"Water Defense testing has found harmful chemicals in residences receiving Flint water," the statement said. "Flint residents are being exposed to these chemicals through various exposure pathways other than drinking water, such as bathing, washing, laundry, irrigation, humidity and climate control."
The statement ignored Edwards' core criticism that Water Defense hasn't shown Flint's contaminant levels to be above average or different than what you'd find in other cities.
David Reckhow, a civil engineering professor and water contaminant expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, reviewed Water Defense's results and didn't see cause for alarm.
"They're not out of the ordinary at all," Reckhow said. "In fact, in many respects they're not finding as much as I see in the water in my own home."
Reckhow confirmed that he uses the shower at his home.