Flint Community Lab aims to test water in 2,500 homes by end of year

Three young people look at water test results in a water testing lab.
Lab assistants at the Flint Community Lab test tap water from Flint homes for lead and copper under the guidance of a principal chemist. Photo: Sarah Schuch

As The McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab prepares to mark its first year of operation, local scientists and community advocates are eager to provide more residents with information about what’s in their tap water. And they are hopeful that more Flint residents will take advantage of the lab’s resources.

The community-led lab aims to restore trust by working with residents and providing an independent analysis of their tap water. The Flint Community Lab, located within the Flint Development Center, opened in October 2020.

While staff initially began testing water in November, equipment problems caused them to halt testing until those issues could be fully resolved. Staff have been continually testing Flint residents’ water for lead and copper since March 2021. Lab staff plan to expand testing in the near future to include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS.

“The goal at the Flint Community Lab remains the same. We know how critical it is to help rebuild trust through the community,” said Shelly Sparks, Flint resident and executive director of the Flint Development Center. “We will continue to work hard to create new partnerships in order to test the water in as many Flint homes as we can. We are asking any residents who want their water tested to please reach out to us.”

Since March, staff members have tested 650 samples. Of those, Principal Chemist Makayla Watson said 1% had lead levels that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion. The EPA requires cities to take action to reduce lead levels if more than 10% of tap water samples exceed 15 ppb. Another 17.5% of the samples contained lead concentrations between 1 ppb and 10 ppb. The rest of the 550 samples have come back with extremely low levels of lead.

If a test result shows high lead levels, lab staff will immediately collect another sample and retest the water. If a resident’s sample is still showing results for high amounts of lead, staff connect the resident with local resources to resolve the issue.

Two young women work in a water tesing lab. One is filling a water bottle with water from the tap and the other is adding a cap to a bottle.
Lab interns fill bottles with purified water to use as a control group for testing.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

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 to prevent corrosion. 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.

Now, chemists and experts are working with high school and college students from the Flint area and beyond to help make a difference and rebuild trust in the community. There are currently 23 high school and college students working at the lab under the guidance of Watson and Community Outreach Coordinator Daryl Sparks.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has granted a total of $222,227 to support the lab. This includes $82,227 to Freshwater Future for construction and technical assistance, as well as $140,000 to the Evergreen Community Development Initiative, which operates the Flint Development Center, to support the first two years of operation and testing.

Getting the community involved

Shelly Sparks said engaging the community is critical. When residents get their water tested, they gain knowledge about what’s in their water, and the community can work together to recover and rise from the water crisis.

Once the results are in, residents are contacted by phone and mail. If lead or copper levels are elevated, staff at the lab will create a care plan for the household. Staff and student interns also will meet with residents to learn more about their health needs and provide them with needed resources.

Staff at the Flint Community Lab plan to collect 50 water samples per week, focusing on different areas of the city. This would allow them to compare results for all corners of the city.

The lab staff hope to test the tap water in 2,500 Flint homes in 2021. They are teaming up with the city of Flint, University of Michigan-Flint and other organizations to produce a more robust water-collection effort.

The community outreach team at the lab has visited more than 200 households this year. More than half of those residents agreed to get their water tested. When residents weren’t home, the outreach team left resources and information for them to review.

A man stands in the water testing lab facility with a mask on and looks to the right of the camera while he holds a keychain in his hand.
Daryl Sparks, community outreach coordinator, helps coordinate student interns, interact with community members, bring in water samples and ensure that residents have all the information and resources they need to better understand what’s in their water.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

While the lab’s main objective is to give residents trusted information about what’s in their water, Shelly Sparks said it’s also great that high school and college students get a chance to give back to their community while gaining work experience. This helps build the next generation of scientists and community advocates, she said.

Lovelyn Epelle said working at the Flint Community Lab is exactly what she feels called to do. The 24-year-old is an international student at University of Michigan-Flint who is studying molecular biology and biotechnology. After spending time volunteering in the community, she knew there was more she could do to help.

“Getting involved in the city made me more aware of my community and the space available for a more positive impact. Flint’s my second home, my home away from home. I am part of the community, and giving back is important to me,” said Epelle, who recently started as a lab assistant.

“I’m minoring in chemistry and public health, so being able to work at the lab was a perfect fit for me,” she added. “What they are doing here is amazing.”

Shelly Sparks hopes that same inspiration carries over to the lab’s youngest participants.

“We want the youth to start dreaming about different careers,” she said. “I want the community to get involved so the kids have more chances to learn about STEM and how to interact with the community. It’s important that Flint residents participate. Please get your water tested. It helps the youth, and it helps the city.”

Jollitta Nkulu, Gabre’l Seales and Breanna Auls know firsthand what it’s like to live through the Flint water crisis. And now, as freshmen in high school, they are doing something to help their friends, families and neighbors. As interns at the Flint Community Lab, they get the opportunity to interact with residents and learn more about their needs.

Three young women stand in front of a lab shelf that holds labeled water samples.
(Left to right) Jollitta Nkulu, Gabre’l Seales and Breanna Auls are high school students who live in Flint and work as interns at the Flint Community Lab.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

“The knowledge we gain is great. We have a lot to learn,” Gabre’l said. “It feels good being able to help our community and help ourselves out. Helping us get real answers. I really like being able to work with new people in the community and learn new things.”

Jollitta, Gabre’l and Breanna all hope to have careers in the medical field. While working at the lab, they have the opportunity to learn from scientists and lab assistants.

“It’s great knowing that we are trying to make a change,” Jollitta said. “We are learning what’s in our water and helping the community to know more as well. It’s a great opportunity, being able to give back.”

To learn more about the Flint Community Lab or to get water tested, visit their website or call 810-875-9127.