The Virginia Tech professor who spearheaded the investigation into lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, delivered this year’s Social Justice Address at International House on Friday evening.
The Social Justice Address is held annually as part of the School of Social Service Administration alumni reunion. Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor and 2007 MacArthur Fellow, first gained fame in 2004 for exposing high lead levels in Washington, D.C.’s water supply.
Edwards said his dealings with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in D.C. convinced him that another, similar crisis was inevitable. Even though 5,000 D.C. children were shown to have blood lead levels above five mg/dL—the CDC’s stated “level of concern”—no employee of either agency was fired for negligence or misleading the public. Instead, five CDC engineers who had previously attempted to warn the public about lead poisoning were let go, never to be compensated for their losses.
Edwards resolved to act quickly should another emergency materialize, stashing $300,000 in personal savings for the cause. When reports surfaced in 2015 that Flint residents were complaining of rashes, hair loss, their children’s mentally and physically stunted growth, and growing distrust of the local tap water, Edwards and his research team traveled to Michigan to investigate.
Their experiments—which involved testing steel and copper in water samples from Flint and Detroit—definitively showed corrosion in Flint’s supply. When the CDC refused to validate these tests, Edwards’s team “broke all the rules that we had been taught” regarding research.
“We did science as a public good . . . We had to declare war on our own government and unethical industry to get people in Flint, Michigan, protected,” Edwards said.
The team asked a fourth-grade classroom and Brownie troop to replicate the experiments and send letters to the Michigan governor. Media outlets broadcasted both stunts, sparking local protests and national outrage. It was revealed that a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee had neglected to put a required inhibitor chemical in the water supply to prevent lead and bacteria contamination. The department had recognized an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014 after twelve Flint residents died from the water-borne infection, but did not alert the public for fear it could “inflame the situation,” Edwards said, quoting an e-mail between state officials.
Edwards’s research resulted in the indictment of eight civil servants. Federal funds totaling $600 million also poured in to pay for local children’s healthcare and education costs, confirming for Edwards that “Flint was exactly the community I am glad we went out on a limb for.” Noting Flint’s status as the second-poorest U.S. city, Edwards called the situation an “environmental crime, perpetrated by our government, against one of our most vulnerable populations.”
Exposing the crisis came at some personal cost, however. “I am a coward 99 percent of the time,” Edwards said. “I have to be, to maintain what little semblance of an academic position I have after this journey.” He cited an editorial published just last month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology by David Sedlak, who criticized Edwards, arguing that scientists’ research funding is too precious to jeopardize by allying with social causes.
Edwards concluded his talk by warning of yet-unsolved crises—particularly in Chicago, which he described as the city “with the worst potential lead problem in the country” due to a local law mandating lead pipes until 1986. He also reiterated the importance of socially conscious science. “When you see an environmental injustice,” he said, “and you see the harm that it can do to people. . . you will never again be a bystander.”