Scott Smith wants you to know that he messed up.
While working for Water Defense, an environmental nonprofit founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, Smith said in 2016 that it might be unsafe to take a shower in Flint, Michigan. Smith and Ruffalo’s warnings came as the government struggled to reduce toxic lead in the city’s water and regain residents’ trust.
Now Smith is taking back some of his claims, including about the supposed dangers of inhaling lead via a steamy shower.
“Given what I now know, I should have indicated that significant adverse health effects from these issues was extremely unlikely,” Smith wrote in a guest post on Flint Water Study Updates, a blog run by Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards.
Edwards, who helped expose Flint’s water problems in 2015, previously criticized Smith and Ruffalo for their work in Flint, calling Ruffalo an A-list actor but an “F-list scientist.” He mocked Smith, a businessman who owns several foam patents, as someone who hadn’t even played a scientist in a movie. Though Water Defense called him its “chief scientist,” he had no scientific degrees and seemed to be pitching his proprietary foam as something that could help the struggling city.
“Smith said he now agrees with Edwards and government scientists who have said there’s no scientifically known reason not to bathe in Flint’s water.”
In a preface to Smith’s blog post last week, Edwards said he would “support anyone who is intellectually honest and wants to be part of the solution to problems.”
Smith’s recantation is a big development in a running feud among activists who blew the whistle on the government’s mishandling of Flint’s water.
In the summer of 2015, Edwards and a team of Flint residents sampled water from their faucets in order to prove the city’s drinking was tainted with lead ― a deadly neurotoxin that can cause miscarriages in pregnant women and brain damage in children.
The government eventually acknowledged its mistakes spiked the city’s water with lead and that people shouldn’t drink it unfiltered. Despite complaints from Flint residents about rashes and hair loss, however, public health officials maintained there wasn’t any reason not to use the water for washing. While it’s possible to get lead in your body by drinking tainted water or inhaling lead dust, you can’t get it through your skin or by inhaling steam from leaded water.
The water was often discolored and nasty, though, and some popular media reinforced bathing fears. “The Steve Harvey Show” featured dubious commentary from medical experts who falsely suggested lead could be absorbed through skin. Ruffalo and Smith went further, testing water in Flint bathrooms for “dangerous chemicals” and saying that neither Edwards nor the government could say bathing was safe.
Smith took water samples from several Flint bathrooms in 2016, and while he found dangerous chemicals, his lab test results showed the levels were acceptable under federal guidelines. In a study published later that year, federal and state investigators said that when the city’s water came from the Flint River, from April 2014 to October 2015, its corrosiveness and chlorine content could have contributed to rashes. After the state government acknowledged its mistakes and switched the city back to Detroit’s water system, testing showed the possible skin irritants dropped to levels found in other cities.
In his blog post, Smith said he now agrees with Edwards and government scientists who have said there’s no scientifically known reason not to bathe in Flint’s water, though more studies should be done. He also said he earned no royalties from the special foam he used in some of his water sampling efforts, though he acknowledged that he hoped the product would eventually become profitable.
Ruffalo declined to comment through a publicist. Water Defense did not respond to requests for comment. At some point in the last two years, the nonprofit ended its relationship with Smith, who worked as a volunteer, and deleted its press releases about chemicals in Flint’s water. (You can still see them via the Wayback Machine.)
This year Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared that Flint’s water has been “restored,” meaning only that lead levels were comparable with what’s found in other cities. While no amount of lead is considered safe, most cities still follow outdated federal regulations that allow small amounts of lead, merely requiring utilities to monitor those levels without having to replace lead pipes in their water systems.
After Snyder’s announcement, several Flint residents told HuffPost that they still don’t trust that their water is safe for drinking and that they were shocked the state stopped providing free bottled water because of the supposed improvement.
Several others said they don’t trust Edwards, signing a letter in May accusing him of using Flint to make himself rich and famous. Among the complaints, the letter says he “erroneously accused Scott Smith and Water Defense of scaring residents out of bathing.”
Edwards told HuffPost he planned to file a defamation suit against the people he thinks are the main authors of the letter. In a response to the letter posted on his website, he noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s in-depth analysis of rash complaints found that 80 percent of residents surveyed said they had changed their bathing habits because of the bad water.
Smith, for his part, wrote that he didn’t mean to scare Flint residents “but I regret that my work may have been represented to have that effect.”
Even some Flint residents who trust Edwards don’t trust the safety of their water for bathing. LeeAnne Walters, a key Flint whistleblower who exposed the high lead content in her home early in 2015, said she and her children still get rashes that they didn’t get before the water contamination. She said they get the rashes even when they’re in Norfolk, Virginia, where she spends half her time because her husband, who is in the Navy, has been stationed there for the past few years.
When she’s in Flint, she uses the water for showering but bathes her 7-year-old twins with bottled water. Doctors previously confirmed that one of the boys had stunted growth, which can be a symptom of lead exposure.
“They’re children, and they’ve been hurt enough,” she said. “I’m a parent, and that’s a precaution I choose to take.”