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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.