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.
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.”