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Alumnus Ethan Wiskur ’17 found one of his 11 samples of Flint water con­tained more than the rec­om­mended amount of lead. Madeleine Jepsen | Col­legian

Hillsdale alumnus Ethan Wiskur ’17 spent part of his summer working with Pro­fessor of Chem­istry Mark Nussbaum, inves­ti­gating a problem close to home: the lead levels in water from Flint, Michigan.

“Being that I live near Flint, went to high school in Flint, and have many family and friends that live in the city, the water crisis has had a per­sonal effect on me,” Wiskur said in an email.

In 2015, the mayor of Flint declared a state of emer­gency due to lead con­t­a­m­i­nation in the city’s water lines. The resulting lead exposure left many of the city’s 97,000 res­i­dents at risk for lead poi­soning. 

A Vir­ginia Tech study broke the story after Flint res­i­dents made com­plaints about water quality. The study, pub­lished by Vir­ginia Tech News in 2015, found lead levels nearly double the maximum levels rec­om­mended by the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tection Agency and found poi­sonous levels of lead in some of the 269 tap-water samples tested by the researchers.

Ulti­mately, the lead con­t­a­m­i­nation prompted former Pres­ident Barack Obama to declare a state of emer­gency for Flint in 2016 in response to the city’s water crisis.

For Wiskur’s research, he col­lected 11 water samples from homes of his family members and friends in Flint. To test the samples for lead, he used a tech­nique called anodic stripping voltam­metry, or ASV. The pro­cedure uses elec­trical charges to cluster the lead present in the water into a bismuth film. By mea­suring the elec­trical current spike from the lead, Wiskur was able to determine the con­cen­tration of lead present in the samples.

“ASV is a good tech­nique for looking at trace levels of metal con­t­a­m­i­nants in water,” Nussbaum said. “I was impressed with his work…ASV involves pretty sophis­ti­cated ana­lytical instru­men­tation.”

Wiskur said he wanted to test more recent water samples to see if they still exceeded the EPA’s rec­om­men­da­tions after looking back at some of the results from the original Vir­ginia Tech study.

Wiskur said one of the 11 samples he tested for his project con­tained more lead than the EPA stan­dards deemed safe.

Wiskur cal­cu­lated the out­lying sample twice, reporting lead con­cen­tra­tions of 21.7 and 20.3 parts per billion, or ppb. Both mea­sure­ments exceeded the rec­om­mended EPA limit of 15 ppb. According to the EPA, one part per billion is roughly equiv­alent to adding one pinch of salt to a 10-ton bag of potato chips — making it a suitable unit for mea­suring small con­cen­tra­tions.

For children growing up in Flint, the lead con­t­a­m­i­nation cor­re­sponds with irre­versible damage to the nervous system, learning dis­abil­ities, and other health issues. Since the water crisis was exposed, the city of Flint has begun replacing old, cor­roded pipes with reliable ones, but the problem has not been fully resolved.

While Wiskur said the sample exceeding EPA rec­om­men­da­tions does not rep­resent all of Flint, he said the city’s water crisis is far from over. He said he is con­cerned about the ele­vated lead levels that still pose a health threat to some Flint res­i­dents.

“I can say that there are def­i­nitely homes in Flint that still have ele­vated lead levels in their tap water,” Wiskur said in an email.