Leading Discovery: Life, Medical & Health Science

Caring in Crisis


In 2015, a substantial public health emergency emerged from the discovery of lead in the city of Flint’s water. When tests revealed toxic levels of lead content in the drinking water of Flint homes, URC universities quickly responded to assess and support the crisis.

On-site MSU researchers were the first to correlate elevated lead levels in children’s blood with contamination of municipal water, and to physically map the extent of the problem. In partnership with Hurley Children’s Hospital, where MSU physician Mona Hanna-Attisha leads the pediatric residency program, MSU formed the Pediatric Public Health Initiative to develop approaches to long-term well-being of Flint children. That initiative brings together experts in pediatrics, child development, psychology, epidemiology, nutrition, toxicology, geography, education, and community and workforce development. The swift response was facilitated by MSU’s embedding in the Flint community for more than 100 years through MSU Extension, partnerships with local hospitals and expansion of the MSU College of Human Medicine’s public health program there and addition of a campus downtown in 2014.

Flint river and bridge

Flint River in Flint, Michigan

At WSU, the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) was formed to conduct an independent study to evaluate the possible association between changes in Flint’s water system and public health, specifically the recent Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

“With input from the community and a number of healthcare partners in Flint and Genesee County, we developed a three-pronged approach to investigating the cause of these outbreaks and reducing the community risk of more illness in the future,” said Shawn McElmurry, Ph.D., FACHEP’s lead principal investigator and professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in WSU’s College of Engineering.

At the U-M Flint and Ann Arbor campuses, researchers partnered with Google to develop a mobile app and website that allows residents and city employees to see information about lead-testing results, water testing, where pipes have been replaced, and the location of distribution centers for water and filters.

“We’ve developed an essential resource,” said Jake Abernethy, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at U-M Ann Arbor. “It’s an independent platform that gives people information they need and want to know as they navigate this complex situation. There’s no playbook for it.”

Additionally, recent federal grants will support collaborative research involving all three URC universities to determine the best ways to manage the point-of-use water filters being used by Flint residents. Manufacturers typically recommend replacing filters after they process approximately 100 gallons of water. This research will examine if this replacement schedule is best for the Flint water distribution system.

“Based on the results we have gathered thus far, the filters are doing a good job removing lead and disinfection by-products,” Susan Masten, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MSU said. “These byproducts are the chemical compounds that occur after water has been disinfected and are measured as total trihalomethanes. So far, after filtration, these chemicals are typically at concentrations below what we can measure.”

While Michigan universities have helped Flint make positive strides, the journey to recovery is far from over. The URC will continue to lead at the community level to increase resources, strengthen research discoveries, and fully support the residents in the city of Flint.