Published August 4, 2016
When civil engineer Marc Edwards (BS ’86) warned Michigan state officials and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that lead-contaminated drinking water was poisoning the children of Flint, he expected them to declare an emergency. Instead, the regulators insisted there was no cause for alarm. That’s when Edwards, now frequently described as “The Hero of Flint,” realized he would have to take matters into his own hands.
IT BEGAN QUIETLY enough one day in April 2015, when civil engineering professor Marc Edwards’ phone rang at his office on the campus of Virginia Tech.
But this wasn’t a standard call about pipe leaks or sewage treatment methods. The call was from LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four in Flint, Mich. Edwards, 52, listened carefully as Walters described brownish tap water that smelled terrible; family members with thinning hair, rashes and abdominal pain; and frustrating assurances from state and local officials—whom she had repeatedly notified about her troubling water—that it was safe.
“Oh no,” Edwards recalls thinking. “Here we go again.”
About a decade earlier, Edwards began his rise to national recognition when he discovered that the water supply in Washington, D.C., was contaminated with lead from corroded pipes, and that thousands of children were ingesting the potent neurotoxin. Edwards reported his findings to the authorities, including the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but nothing happened. In fact, the CDC issued a report downplaying the health risk. So Edwards spent the next six years and thousands of dollars of his own money (including a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” he won in 2007) working to expose the truth and the surrounding cover-up. Finally, in 2010, a congressional hearing concluded that the CDC report was “scientifically indefensible.” The public was outraged, and Edwards’ reputation as a dogged researcher willing to take on some of the country’s most entrenched and powerful regulatory agencies was sealed.
EDWARDS GREW UP in and around Ripley, N.Y., a speck of a farm town on Lake Erie about 70 miles southwest of Buffalo. The son of a schoolteacher and a stay-at-home mom, he attended a one-building K-12 country school; as a teenager, he worked in the fields alongside immigrant farmhands. These humble beginnings, he says, were instrumental in giving him the values that guide him today.
“Ripley was a poor but amazing place. As a kid growing up there, you felt lucky to get a job with the immigrant laborers in the grape vineyards. You worked all day with them, and you were happy that someone was paying you a farm minimum wage.
“When you grow up that way,” he says, “you never consider looking down on poor people. How could you? You’d be looking down on yourself.”
Arriving at UB in 1982, Edwards decided to take on a “huge challenge”: majoring in biophysics. “At that time, it was the most rigorous science program at the school,” he says. “You had to take, essentially, three years of physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry. You were totally immersed in science, and it was very tough. But I also had some wonderful science teachers, both in college and in high school, and that was very humbling. I try to live up to their example every day.”
Having learned, as he puts it, “to worship at the altar of science,” Edwards went on to earn a PhD in environmental engineering at the University of Washington, then spent several years teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder before joining the faculty of Virginia Tech’s civil and environmental engineering department in 1997.
What followed, he says, was a busy period of teaching and research, during which time he remained “incredibly naïve” about how science can be used to justify decision-making that can adversely impact the public. “You’re on this treadmill where everything is about getting money from research grants, getting publications, and if you aren’t careful, you can lose yourself completely and forget that science is supposed to be about advancing the public good.”
But Edwards was spared that fate—if painfully—when he became embroiled in the Washington, D.C., water crisis during the mid-2000s. While researching pinhole leaks in copper plumbing systems around the country, he was contacted by a group of D.C. homeowners who wanted him to check their pipes. Having heard of occasional problems with lead in the District’s water supply, Edwards decided to test it, and discovered a much bigger problem than he had anticipated. Many of the samples he collected contained enough lead particles to be legally classified as hazardous waste, capable of causing devastating injuries to the developing brains of children.
Edwards reported his findings to the appropriate authorities (the CDC, the EPA and the D.C. water authority). A father of two himself—his kids were 2 and 4 years old at the time—he was sure the agencies would alert the public and begin working to fix the problem. Instead, the CDC issued its false report, while the water authority, which had been supporting Edwards’ research, withdrew its funding, and the EPA discontinued its subcontract with him.
Isolated but determined, Edwards continued his research, paying graduate students out of his own pocket. The Washington Post began reporting on the story, which led to political intervention, and, eventually, the congressional hearing which affirmed that the CDC had misled the public about the health risk. Based on Edwards’ research, the District’s hazardous water-supply system was treated with an anti-corrosive chemical that fixed the problem.
Edwards was vindicated, but the effort took a significant toll on his finances and his health. He lost significant weight and at one point was hospitalized for stress. At the same time, he underwent a remarkable inner conversion, in which he began to study the humanities as a way of countering, as he explains it, the “dehumanization” that can overtake “well-intentioned scientists who fall prey to the deadening impact of relying on reason and nothing else.”
“When that happens,” he says, “human beings can become mere data on a page of scientific research. And history shows us that terrible things can take place when ‘bad science’ is allowed to shape policies and decisions affecting the public good.”
INDEED, THERE HE WAS, on the phone that fateful day in April, possibly hearing yet another example of “bad science” shaping misguided policy. After listening to Walters’ story, Edwards talked her through how to take water samples and had her overnight them to him. The lead content in one sample was 13,200 parts per billion (ppb)—much higher than anything he had seen in D.C. The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 ppb. Five thousand ppb is considered by the EPA to be hazardous waste.
He alerted the EPA, hoping it had learned its lesson. One employee took the problem seriously, sending a memo to the agency’s upper administrators outlining the danger to Flint’s population and requesting that the EPA exert emergency powers to take over the system. But the agency failed to take action. That’s when Edwards formed a team of student researchers and, as he reported to The Washington Post the following January, decided to “go all in for Flint.”
Edwards worked tirelessly, and without compensation, for more than a year, spending roughly $150,000 of his own money and driving back and forth to Flint, where he sometimes slept on Walters’ living room sofa. He and his team analyzed hundreds of samples of the city’s tainted drinking water and mounted a publicity campaign (including setting up a website) to alert the public, news media and political leaders as to what they were finding.
What were they finding? That the toxic water flowing from Walters’ tap was not an isolated case, as the officials had told her. Elevated lead levels were pervasive throughout the city—in houses, offices, day care centers, schools. When Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha got wind of the data Edwards was compiling, she began systematically testing lead in children’s blood—and finding levels as high as 38 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL), or more than seven times the CDC threshold of 5 μg/dL. Any exposure to lead can be harmful to children; high exposure can be catastrophic, with effects including cognitive impairment, neurological disorders, developmental delays and hearing loss. Though there are medications to reduce blood lead levels, any damage that has already occurred is believed to be irreversible.
As he was learning the deep, dark truths about Flint’s water, Edwards was simultaneously filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documents to see what state and federal officials knew, and when. It turns out they were well aware of how toxic the city’s drinking water was, for at least several months before admitting it to the public.
THE WATER CRISIS in the southeast Michigan municipality of about 100,000 began in April of 2014. At that time, a state-appointed emergency manager, hired to supervise the financial affairs of the fiscally insolvent city, decided to cut costs by switching its water source from Lake Huron (Detroit’s water system) to the Flint River. But for some reason that is still unclear, the city never treated the much more corrosive river water with the chemicals necessary to prevent contamination from lead pipes—nor did the state require it to do so—despite a federal law mandating that all cities have a corrosion control plan. Untreated, the corrosive water quickly began to leach away lead from the city’s aging service lines.
Over the next 14 months, as documents later revealed, repeated analysis of the water by state and local officials showed that lead levels were rising. By early 2015, residents were filing complaints about water that looked, smelled and tasted funky, and children who were suffering from rashes and mysterious illnesses. In June 2015, the EPA employee mentioned above wrote his memo, citing Edwards’ early findings and requesting intervention. The EPA didn’t intervene, and after the memo leaked, state and local officials continued to assure the public the water was safe, dismissing the elevated lead level reports in the memo as isolated incidences. In July, the mayor of Flint famously drank a cup of tap water on television to prove its harmlessness.
It wasn’t until October—months after Edwards’ first reports and a few weeks after Hanna-Attisha released the results of her investigation—that officials acknowledged the problem publicly. Soon after, the governor appropriated $9.35 million to reconnect the city to Detroit’s water system and provide health services to residents. In January, he declared a state of emergency, and in February, with the help of federal funds, the city began replacing lead-contaminated pipes throughout the city.
But the story in Flint is far from over. While there has been some justice—a task force was appointed, many officials lost their jobs, some are facing criminal prosecution, and more than a dozen lawsuits, including several class action suits, have been filed—city residents continue to live a nightmare. It’s been reported that up to 12,000 children may have been affected by lead poisoning; it could be years before parents understand the full extent of their injuries. And though not conclusively linked to the water system, an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that began when the water source changed has sickened 91 people and taken 12 lives. In the meantime, the people of Flint still can’t drink water from their taps, and given their utter lack of trust in government, possibly never will. A recent New York Times story documented the profound fear, guilt and depression that many residents are suffering in the aftermath of such prolonged and systemic betrayal.
All that said, there is no question the story would have taken an even more horrific turn had it not been for Edwards. He is a hero in Flint, and is increasingly recognized throughout the country for his courage and moral integrity. In April, Time magazine named Edwards and Hanna-Attisha to its annual “100 Most Influential People” list for being “right, brave and insistent.”
But Edwards doesn’t do it for the glory. In fact, if he had it his way, he wouldn’t be doing it at all. “I actually don’t like the activist route I’ve been forced to take,” he says. “But if science is failing to do its job, then you have to take the struggle to the next level. Because that’s the only way to protect the kids.”