Tuesday, June 2, 2020

MSU professor wins global water research award, strives to help Flint

April 13, 2016
Fisheries and wildlife professor Joan Rose talks  on April 5, 2016 at the Kellogg Center. Rose was recently recognized as the 2016 recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize.
Fisheries and wildlife professor Joan Rose talks on April 5, 2016 at the Kellogg Center. Rose was recently recognized as the 2016 recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize. —
Photo by Kelly vanFrankehuyzen | and Kelly vanFrankehuyzen The State News

MSU professor and water microbiologist Joan Rose is a water quality champion.

On March 22, Rose was awarded the 2016 Stockholm Water Prize, an honor known globally for water research. She is the third woman in history to receive it.

Currently, she works as the Homer Nowlin Endowed Chair in Water Research at MSU, but what is not immediately known about her and her string of research accomplishments is she has also been an active researcher in the city of Flint since the onset of the Flint water crisis in 2014.

“The crisis was really already emerging when I got there,” Rose said. “They got an E. coli violation, which of course that’s the thing we work on here, so you have to wait and see if anybody gets sick after an E. coli violation. And we’re just watching what was going on in 2014, watching these cases show up, and towards the end of 2014, the public was just screaming.”

Rose watched as violations against Flint’s water quality and water treatment stacked up. She said to disinfect the water from E. coli, officials needed to treat the water, but the treatment had to be regulated to protect water from harmful byproducts. It was during this process Rose was called in for a professional opinion, as she’s worked in water treatment facilities and health departments across the state.

“When I got the call, it was just a mess,” Rose said. “Everyone was so angry. The public was complaining about being sick already and they were bringing in water that was red. I told them that that redness was not from disinfection byproducts, but that it was probably iron coming off the pipes.”

"When I got the call, it was just a mess. Everyone was so angry. The public was complaining about being sick already and they were bringing in water that was red. I told them that that redness was not from disinfection byproducts, but that it was probably iron coming off the pipes."


Rose wrote about Flint in early 2015, when the crisis had barely found media attention. Soon after initially advising Flint officials, she joined the technical advisory committee for the city and set out to work on research and solution efforts for the slew of issues Flint was suddenly experiencing.


Going underground — the search for Flint’s lead pipes

As Rose began a research effort in monitoring and advising Flint’s public officials, later in October 2015, another of MSU’s brains was called to the scene — civil and environmental engineering professor Susan Masten.

It was a collaboration effort between Masten and Shawn McElmurry at Wayne State University, who received his doctorate degree at MSU.

McElmurry invited Masten to join him in a study on water quality in Flint, alongside a few other researchers at other universities, and she said yes.

“The big issue we’re looking at here is, ‘Where are the lead pipes?’” Masten said. “The records we have are severely lacking.”

Masten said this is wrong — by law, cities must know where their lead and partially lead pipes are. But recent reports by the Detroit Free Press said the issue of not knowing what kind of pipes are where is not singular to Flint, or even to Michigan.

Nonetheless, Masten is working on figuring that out in the city of Flint. She said she and her team of researchers are also doing both prospective and retrospective studies on the civil engineering of Flint’s infrastructure. They are trying to understand the history of Flint to better prepare for its future.

“My role has been more on the terms of the civil engineering side, learning what happened in terms of corrosion and why, and what lessons did we learn,” Masten said. “And where do we go from here? How quickly is the system recovering, and if it’s not how do we fix that?”

Masten said it’s too soon to know what Flint’s future is, or even to say when things will get better. So far, however, there is one thing standing out to her.

“The biggest message that I think we’ve hopefully learned from this is that when you’re making modifications to a treatment plan, it’s critical that you understand the entire process,” Masten said. “And that you look at what happens in the entire plan and you also look at what happens miles away in the distribution lines. How does that water change? How does the quality change? What do we do to protect it?”

As Masten was searching for Flint’s lead pipes, a doctor with Hurley Children’s Hospital and a professor at the MSU College of Human Medicine Mona Hanna-Attisha was conducting studies on Flint children.

Hanna-Attisha said she believed the children were facing negative health effects from the water they were drinking. In September 2015, she released a study saying nearly twice as many Flint children had high levels of lead in their blood.

A few months after the study published, MSU’s College of Human Medicine and Hurley Children’s Hospital struck up a partnership for Flint, Michigan entitled the Pediatric Public Health Initiative.

“I think that we’ll see a multi-university collaboration in Flint emerging, but built on land grant values,” MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said. “We’re just going to be part of, hopefully, the solution, through extension primarily in the medical school.”

The interim dean of the College of Human Medicine at MSU Dr. Aron Sousa said the partnership with Hurley is a way for MSU to use partnerships it already had in place to create resources for kids negatively affected by the crisis.

“The main goal is to change the opportunity for these children,” Sousa said. “There has been so much negativity that has been happening to them and for any one of these children, they deserve the same kind of opportunities that children have around this country.”

Sousa said the College of Human Medicine has been in Flint for more than 40 years and has partnerships with its three major hospitals, so it just felt natural as the crisis expanded to use those partnerships to reach out.

“We’ve initiated programs to help improve nutrition through education and help improve health literacy by a distribution of informational material,” Sousa said. “And we’re trying to put together more collaborations, but right now we’re just trying to implement intervention. That is the first set of work, trying to implement education and figure out ways to access information.”

Their big focus lies in evaluating kids exposed to the harmful toxins in Flint’s water and figuring out how to best serve them.

“There’s no specific cure for removing lead from children’s bodies,” Sousa said. “But there is good evidence that shows that from providing good nutrition and a supportive environment that you can make a difference and you can help them reach, as much as possible, their best potential.”

As research efforts exploded across campus and across the world and Flint came under national spotlight, a team of faculty, students and professionals within the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at MSU and WKAR-TV met last January to talk about putting some sort of resource together for Flint’s residents.

“We all kind of talked in early January about what sort of resources we have as a college,” associate professor in the Department of Media and Information and developer of the app Brian Winn said. “What resources we have, what skills we have and the idea of the app really came up quickly because in the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab we have the ability to create it, and in the college we also have WKAR to help in creating that information and that sort of thing.”

The app, entitled Empower Flint, hit Apple and Android stores alike on March 1 after about two months of gathering information and roughly three weeks of overall programming and development. Winn said he and his team wanted to make it available as soon as possible.

“There’s a lot of folks in Flint who are in a lower socioeconomic bracket and don’t always have access to a desktop computer,” Winn said. “So by putting an app out on Apple and Android, two major smart phone distributors, we were able to hit a much broader population than that of a website.”

The app allows users access to vital information, such as how to test water for unsafe lead levels, how to identify symptoms of lead poisoning in family members and pets and a slew of other helpful resources that, before the creation of the app, were not available in one place for Flint residents.

“We called it Empower Flint because we really did want to empower the people of Flint,” Winn said. “We wanted to give them the ability to help themselves because they’re the ones who are on the ground dealing with this crisis every day. ... One thing that Flint did is shed light across the country and across the world on water infrastructure and water quality,” Winn said. “But at the same time there’s still essentially poison in the water and one day that’s going to change, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

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