Community-led water lab in Flint aims to rebuild trust

A student wearing a mask, white lab coat and gloves works with water testing bottles in the lab at the McKenzie Patrice Croom Memorial Flint Community Lab.
A local high school student helps collect water samples for the Flint Community Lab. Photo: Dominique Strong

As the Flint community continues to recover from the water crisis, staff and volunteers at the Flint Development Center are working to give residents more information and confidence about their tap water.

The McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab, located within the Flint Development Center, opened Oct. 9. Staff at the lab hope to start testing residents’ water for lead and copper immediately. The center’s partner on the project, Freshwater Future, plans to expand testing for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, in the near future.

“It means so much to the community to have this lab open. We want to help rebuild trust within the community when it comes to our drinking water,” said Shelly Sparks, Flint resident and executive director of the Flint Development Center. “It’s a good feeling to offer something the community needs. We are showing residents we care. That’s the most important part.”

Alexandria Schipansky (left), principal chemist at the lab, and Dominique Strong, the community outreach coordinator, pose in front of the Flint Community Lab. Teams of high school and college interns will work with both staff members to collect and test tap water from Flint homes.
Photo: Dominique Strong

The Flint water crisis erupted in 2014, after the city — which was under state control at the time — switched its source of drinking water to the Flint River but failed to properly treat the water. That error caused lead, a potent neurotoxin, to leach from pipes and into the community’s water supply, causing a public health emergency. Local, state and federal officials initially downplayed the severity of the problem, shattering the community’s trust in government agencies.

Flint has replaced thousands of lead service lines since then, and the city’s overall water system now meets the federal standard for lead and copper, according to state and federal agencies. However, local health experts continue to urge residents to drink only bottled or filtered water until all work to replace lead service lines is completed, and many residents still distrust government officials and agencies.

The community water lab was designed to restore trust by working with residents and providing an independent analysis of their tap water.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted $82,227 for construction and equipment to Freshwater Future, which is providing technical assistance for the lab. The Foundation also granted $70,000 to the Evergreen Community Development Initiative, which operates the Flint Development Center, to support the first year of operation and testing.

Staff at the Flint Community Lab aim to test tap water from every occupied household in Flint by the end of 2022. Testing will be free for the first three years.

Local high school students work with staff at the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab to test and collect water, and meet with Flint residents to learn more about their needs.
Photo: Dominique Strong

“We’ve known since the early days of the water crisis that trust would be the hardest thing to repair,” said Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Mott Foundation. “The opening of this lab is an important step on the journey back to rebuilding trust from within the community.”

Alexandria Schipansky, principal chemist at the lab, and Dominique Strong, the community outreach coordinator, joined the team earlier this year to begin working closely with residents to respond to their needs.

“This new program will shine a light on the fact that many Flint residents still don’t trust that their water is clean, but they are doing something about it,” Schipansky said.

High school and college students from Flint and nearby communities also are working with Strong and Schipansky to help collect and test water samples. They hope to provide results within a week.

As a Flint native, Strong understands resident’s concerns. During the water crisis, she moved her family just outside the city, but she remembers how she felt when water at her Flint home was being tested.

“I received my results two months later. That is too long. That made me feel like they don’t care about me,” Strong said. “We can start changing the narrative in the city of Flint by bringing trust back in the community with our own water testing lab.”

A lab assistant tests water in the newly opened Flint Community Lab, which is located inside the Flint Development Center.
Photo: Alexandria Schipansky

Once the results are in, residents will be contacted by phone and mail. If lead or copper levels are elevated, staff at the lab will create a care plan for the household. The students also will meet with residents to learn more about their health needs.

Including high school and college students is a crucial part of the process, according to Strong and Schipansky. In addition to testing water, the students will participate in other environmental classes and education.

“We hope they will become leaders within the city of Flint with their experience with the water testing lab,” Strong said. “They are the people who can improve our water policies and infrastructure to make sure this (water crisis) won’t happen again.”

Jill Ryan, executive director of Freshwater Future, said community leaders helped those developing the lab realize that the key to restoring trust was a multigenerational approach. That included training and education for youth who could then pass that information along to adults when testing homes for current lead levels.

“Having a lab that is based in Flint and operated by local residents, with the purpose of serving Flint residents and embracing their resilience to keep working to solve their problems, is amazing,” Ryan said.

Building trust is not just about knowing what is and is not in residents’ water, Strong said. It is also about building relationships with residents and supporting their overall health needs. Staff at the lab will work to connect residents to resources that promote better physical and mental health, as well as general well-being.

“Our idea is to allow the community to dream again and believe in a community that is safe,” Sparks said. “What we are doing here creates more opportunities for our youth and helps kids to dream. Maybe they become chemists or water advocates, and then they become advocates for the city. That’s the dream for the whole city.”