Published October 20, 2016
Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech civil engineering professor and UB graduate credited with uncovering water contamination in Flint, Michigan, told a UB audience on Thursday that a similar crisis he helped expose a decade earlier in Washington, D.C., was 30 times worse than the more recent crisis in Flint.
Edwards, who graduated from UB in 1986 with a degree in biophysics, is the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. He spoke as part of UB’s Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water (RENEW) Distinguished Lecture Series.
Edwards focused on science and activism, and how civil engineers and scientists can end up crossing the line between them in the interest of public health.
“Washington, D.C.’s, water crisis started innocently enough,” he told the audience. “In 2001, the city’s water authorities switched their treatment chemical from chlorine to chloramine. That created a chemical reaction that caused corrosion and allowed lead to leach from the city’s older pipes into the water supply.”
Edwards said an investigation later found the utility, then known as the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, avoided sounding the alarm.
“And this was even after federal law required the authority to issue warnings to the public about health dangers caused by rising lead levels,” he said.
“From 2001 to 2004, the three years when lead levels in D.C. water were very high, 2,000 children were not born, which can be attributed to high miscarriage rates. An additional 200 fetal deaths, we believe, were associated with this.
“Six Congressional investigations were held to look into this. But nothing came of it after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote up a report that — I kid you not — found that no one in Washington, D.C., not a single man, woman or child, was hurt by these three years of unprecedented lead exposure.”
Edwards said the CDC had not tested residents who drank the city’s water every day.
“Instead, they tested the blood lead levels of individuals who had not consumed D.C. tap water for a year, then passed those results as the worst cases.”
Edwards called the study scientific misconduct, but said the damage it caused went beyond misrepresenting data.
“The CDC falsified this report. Then, the lies from their study started to spread around the world and I began reading about this stuff not only in our country, but in cases in Europe and Canada — people and governments saying ‘We don’t have to worry about lead in water.’
“There is no disputing the damage that lead does to children,” Edwards told the UB audience. “So what was happening was this: leaving children in harm’s way.”
Edwards said the CDC and other agencies refused to provide him with data so he could do an independent study of lead levels in D.C. children’s blood samples.
But in 2008, he finally persuaded the Children’s National Medical Center to share its data with him. “Within 10 minutes I had it figured out. Thousands of children were being poisoned by lead by drinking D.C.’s tap water.
“And it had gone on for six years.”
Edwards spent several months crunching numbers to establish a scientific link between lead in D.C. children’s blood and lead in the water, which resulted in an award-winning research paper he published in January 2009.
Edwards said a bi-partisan Congressional committee then issued a damning report refuting CDC’s results.
“It was the first time in CDC’s history that the agency downplayed the effects of lead on children,” he said. “There are a lot of lessons here for how science can go awry, how bureaucracies can use science to hide the truth.
“Which brought us to the Flint water crisis. There were state and EPA officials there who were well aware of how toxic the city’s water became after the city switched its water supply from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. For 18 months. Until they were forced to acknowledge the problem publicly.”
Edwards told the audience that in both Washington, D.C., and Flint, it took crossing the line between science and activism to force officials responsible in each crisis to admit mistakes that had caused the crises.
“Until we can learn from our mistakes, these types of crises will continue to happen,” he said. “EPA officials completely covered up the District’s lead problems for six years. That created a climate across the United States in which ‘anything goes’ regarding unsafe levels of lead in drinking water.”
During a question-and-answer session, Edwards was asked what motivates him.
“Shame that my profession had something to do with both the Washington, D.C., water crisis and Flint,” he responded. “However, efforts to raise water-quality standards are happening in cities and communities across the country, and I give a shout-out to Buffalo for taking action on this.”
Asked by a UB student if he had ever felt afraid while he was confronting state and federal agencies during the D.C. and Flint water crises, Edwards said, “Definitely. Many times. I had feelings of fear for my family and I knew that I was putting my career on the line.”
But, he added, “Our worst fears are often not the truth.
“One time in D.C., I was walking to my car, after dark, and I saw three very large guys standing right next to it. As I got closer, I saw they each had lead pipes in their hands and ‘D.C. Water’ across their shirts.
“As they approached me, I wasn’t sure what might happen. One of them said, ‘Dr. Edwards, we want to thank you for what you are doing and here are some lead pipes from the city’s system to help in your research.’
“It’s been quite a journey, and I wouldn’t change anything.”