U-M faculty, Flint community partners team up on water projects


What are the long-term direct and indirect health effects of drinking lead-contaminated water for Flint residents?

How do teenagers in the Flint community see the water crisis in their community affecting them and their future?

What is the impact of the Flint water crisis on vulnerable adults and what can be done to ameliorate their situation?

Those are just three of the many questions researchers from all three University of Michigan campuses hope to answer as they work with Flint community partners on projects that have received initial seed funding from President Mark Schlissel.

The president was in Flint Monday to meet with students, faculty and community partners on their work related to the water situation.

“I was gratified to see the wide-ranging scope of proposals we received from our talented faculty members across all three of our campuses. It is a true testament to how deeply committed the university community is to Flint’s recovery from this crisis,” Schlissel said. 

“The seed money is the first round of funding needed to quickly launch these projects, and we are confident that it will lead to even more robust research efforts that will assist the Flint community in the immediate and longer term.”

President Mark Schlissel and UM-Flint Chancellor Susan E. Borrego met with faculty and staff to discuss the Flint water crisis. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

In all, seven proposals for projects to help address the Flint water crisis were selected for funding. Faculty from across the three campuses are participating in the newly funded efforts.

UM-Flint Chancellor Susan E. Borrego and UM-Flint Provost Douglas Knerr hosted more than 140 faculty members from the Flint, Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses Jan. 29 to discuss ideas for collaborations and opportunities to work with community organizations responding to the Flint water crisis. The president committed then to providing seed funding to help get the work started quickly. The funding for these projects totals $131,500 and was provided through donor gifts.

“We look forward to joining with our colleagues from throughout the state to continue our work to provide solutions for our community,” Borrego said.

“These efforts will put our leading academic experts in direct contact with our community partners to provide important insight into how the water crisis has affected us and will continue to impact us — so that we all can continue to work together to move Flint forward.”

For the project focused on the long-term impact of drinking lead-contaminated water, researchers plan to take an intergenerational approach to assessing exposure of all those affected by the water crisis — from infants through older adults.

The team includes experts from the School of Public Health, UM-Flint’s School of Health Professions and Studies, and Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. The research focuses on assessing the medical, psycho-social, developmental and economic impact on those affected by following a group of people over an indefinite period of time.

Community collaboration is a key component of a pilot project focused on how Flint youth perceive the water crisis and its impact on their lives. About 100 teens, ages 13-17, will participate in a project designed to better understand their perceptions and needs for the future.   Researchers from SPH will team up with the Flint Odyssey House-Health Awareness Center, which also works with the Fathers and Sons Project Steering Committee, for the study.

Schlissel and Borrego also met with students to discuss the Flint water situation. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

A third project will analyze existing data to examine the epidemiological effects of lead exposure on vulnerable adults in the Flint community by focusing on those who receive home care services. The project team includes staff from UM-Flint, the Ann Arbor campus and the Valley Area Agency on Aging, which serves the Flint community.

Kathryn C. Boles, executive director of the Valley Area Agency on Aging, said the study will provide important answers for her organization to make sure the city’s older population is not overlooked.

“My hope for the research is that we’re able to identify the ways our most vulnerable senior populations, such as those receiving home care services, are being impacted by the water crisis so we can improve and modify programs to better address those needs,” Boles said.

Knerr said he was pleased to see that the January meeting to convene faculty from all three campuses resulted in such high-quality proposals.

“These projects represent a great depth of dedication from our faculty across the state to helping Flint, to offering their expertise and to being of service to address the multitude of issues surrounding the water crisis,” Knerr said.

Provost Martha Pollack, Knerr, Susan Alcock, special counsel for institutional outreach and engagement in the Office of the President, and Volker Sick, associate vice president for research in the Office of Research, reviewed a dozen research proposals.

“Each of the research projects deals with important topics and they will all have different benefits that will lead to better ways to address the issues that have risen from the Flint water situation,” Pollack said.

UM-Flint has been a leader in the efforts to help the community recover from the water crisis. The university responded proactively as a campus, starting water quality tests in fall 2014 and installing filters across campus immediately thereafter. UM-Flint also launched a new interactive map containing recent water test results — which continue to show the campus’ water is safe.

Additionally, UM-Flint hosted the first major water filter giveaway in the city in October 2015, and members of the campus community have committed hundreds of hours to volunteer efforts with different organizations throughout the county.

The university remains actively engaged with the entire Flint community to address its most immediate needs, to create solutions, and to build a strong future.


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