Issues with Data Collection – the Flint MI Water Crisis

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The city of Flint, Michigan changed its water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April, 2014 in order to save money.  Residents soon began to complain about the water’s color, taste and odor, and to report rashes and concerns about bacteria.  The Flint city government proclaimed at that time that “Flint water is safe to drink”.  What follows is a very brief synopsis of the events involved in the ensuing crisis.

In August and September of 2014 residents were advised to boil tap water due to high bacteria levels.  In October, 2014 the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality blamed the high bacteria levels on cold weather, aging pipes and a population decline.

Some city residents began to worry about lead, and persistently complained to local and state officials, to no avail.  In February of 2015, 104 parts per billion of lead were detected in drinking water at the home of Lee Anne Walters.  Ms. Walters notified the Environmental Protection Agency.  Even small amounts of lead can cause lasting health and developmental problems in children. The E.P.A. does not require action until levels reach 15 parts per billion, but public health scientists say there is NO safe level for lead in water.   Miguel Del Toral, an E.P.A. expert, said that the state was testing the water in a way that could profoundly understate the lead levels.  On March 3, 2015 a second test detected 397 parts per billion of lead in drinking water at Ms. Walters’s home.

The Hurley Medical Center, in Flint, released a study in September 2015 that confirmed what many Flint parents had feared for over a year: The proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River as its water source.  A group of doctors led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha urged the city to stop using the Flint River for water after finding high levels of lead in the blood of children.  State regulators continued to insist that the water was safe.

According to the World Health Organization, “lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”

By December 2015 a state of emergency had been declared in Flint.  The Flint Water Advisory Task Force issued the following statement:   “We believe the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.”  The Department of Environmental Quality director, Dan Wyant, resigned.

The New York Times published an article on July 29, 2016 entitled How Officials Distorted Flint’s Water Testing.   The article, written by Josh Keller and Derek Watkins, detailed how six state employees in Michigan were charged on July 27, 2016 with crimes related to the lead water crisis in Flint.  Quoting from the article, “Local and state officials had said for months that tests showed that Flint’s water had safe levels of lead. But the officials used flawed testing methods, making the levels of lead in the water supply appear far less dangerous than they were”.  Three other officials were charged with crimes in April, 2016.  They were accused of covering up deficiencies in two rounds of lead testing conducted in 2014 and 2015.

In an earlier article entitled Issues in Sampling, I explained that a sample taken from a larger population should be selected in a random fashion such that the samples are representative of the entire population.  Random selection of samples helps us avoid the introduction of bias into the results of our studies.   The opposite happened in Flint.  A study that was conducted in 2015 was required by law to re-test all of the sites that had been tested in 2014.  Instead, samples were taken from very few sites.  All of sites that were sampled in 2015 were previously known to have low lead levels.

Again quoting from the Times article:  “A single block of houses next to a recently replaced water main along Flushing Road accounted for more than 10 percent of Flint’s water tests in 2015.  The testing itself was designed to create artificially low readings. Residents were told to run their taps for several minutes before samples were taken for lead testing, an unusual practice called “pre-flushing.” Two state officials face misdemeanor charges in part for this practice.”

By biasing the way that samples were collected, the state officials slanted the results of the tests to show the lowest possible levels of lead in the drinking water.  By doing so, and by continuing to insist that the water was safe when it clearly was not, these officials put thousands of children at risk for irreparable harm.

Your comments or questions about this article are welcome, as are suggestions for future articles.  Feel free to contact me by email at

About the author:  Mr. Roger C. Ellis is an industrial engineer by training and profession.  He earned his BSIE Degree from General Motors Institute (now known as Kettering University) in Flint MI.

He is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 48 years of business experience in a wide range of fields.  Mr. Ellis develops and instructs Six Sigma professional certification courses for Key Performance LLC.   For a more detailed biography, please refer to



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On July 30th, 2016, posted in: Six Sigma by Tags: ,

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