Scientist accuses Mark Ruffalo’s group of fearmongering

By Tiffany Stecker | 05/16/2016 01:08 PM EDT

A crusading researcher who revealed the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., is accusing movie star Mark Ruffalo’s advocacy group of frightening residents of the beleaguered city about the safety of their water supply.

Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards, whose study uncovered dangerous lead levels in Flint’s tap water, wrote a blog post on the study’s website condemning Water Defense, an organization founded by the acclaimed actor.

Ruffalo’s scientific assessment of Flint’s water "defies basic laws of physics and chemistry," Edwards wrote, referring to a recent CNN segment in which the actor says byproducts created through the water treatment process could have been caused by corroded lead or galvanized iron pipes.

Mark Ruffalo
Mark Ruffalo. | Photo by Michael C. Guinto, courtesy of Wikipedia.

"Indeed, we do know where [disinfection byproducts] come from — they do not come from corroded pipe," Edwards said.

Edwards also slammed Water Defense Chief Technology Officer Scott Smith’s assertion that Flint’s water contains "dangerous" chemicals.

The chemical of concern, Smith said, is chloroform, a byproduct of water treatment.

Smith warned residents not to bathe with tap water earlier this year, saying chloroform, a suspected carcinogen, "can volatize quickly into the air, can also penetrate the skin, and [is] inhaled directly into the lungs."

Edwards said the levels of chloroform and other disinfection byproducts (DBPs) in Flint’s water are no cause for alarm.

"Water Defense has consistently presented their chloroform and DBP data, as if they have discovered something new, dangerous and unique to Flint residents," he wrote. "But I reviewed their data, and it is typical of a very good tap water, as is expected given that Flint has now switched back to Detroit water."

Ruffalo is famous for his environmental activism, notably his opposition to hydraulic fracturing and the Keystone XL pipeline. He founded Water Defense in 2010 to measure water contamination in areas affected by chemical and industrial spills, oil leaks, pesticides and fertilizers, and stormwater runoff.

Flint is slowly recovering from a lead contamination crisis that stems from a 2014 decision to end a water contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and begin drawing from the Flint River. The untreated corrosive river water ate away at service lines, leaching lead into tap water. Lead is a strong neurotoxin that can damage organs and cause development problems in children.

Marc Edwards
Marc Edwards. | Photo by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The city switched back to Detroit’s water in the fall, after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) admitted that the state had made a mistake in not adding anti-corrosion chemicals to the river water.

Edwards blamed Water Defense for heightening fears in a community where people are already skeptical of government agencies.

"Not everyone who challenges the claims of the EPA, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and State of Michigan are automatically correct," he added.

Edwards also linked Water Defense’s work to a spike in gastrointestinal illnesses in Flint, a likely result of less bathing and hand-washing.

Melissa Mays, a local activist who worked with Edwards on the first round of water testing in Flint and a supporter of Water Defense’s efforts, lashed out at the Flint Water Study post.

"Marc Edwards is treating Water Defense EXACTLY how the State treated him when he first began testing," Mays told Greenwire in an email. "Why aren’t those hired to test our water listening to the residents?? We are NOT SCARED by detailed lab results. We are scared of the UNKNOWN and DISGUSTED by the dismissal of our concerns and test results by so-called experts."

Water Defense’s Smith didn’t specifically respond to the blog post from Edwards but said he stood behind his findings in an email to Greenwire, saying they are supported by EPA data.