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WHEN WATER GETS DIRTY – THE FLINT WATER CRISIS
By Suzanne Forcese
A drinking water supply can be broken down into three parts: the source water, the drinking water treatment system, and the distribution system which carries the treated water to homes, businesses, schools and other buildings. In Canada each province, territory and municipality has specific frequency and method guidelines for monitoring water quality and maintaining detailed records from source to consumer. When water quality and safety problems arise, advisories are issued.
What would happen though if potential problems were not made public; if violations were to fall through the cracks due to poor documentation reporting or oversight? What if violations were covered up, perhaps for political or financial reasons?
As it happened in Flint, Michigan.
In April 2014, the state of Michigan took over management of the city of Flint, and as a cost-saving measure decided to switch the city’s water from treated Detroit Water sourced from Lake Huron to water from the notoriously polluted Flint River. A human rights travesty followed that decision as people started suffering health problems, including rashes, hair loss and vision problems while state managers insisted the water was safe, even in the face of third-party independent water testing.
In August 2015, Virginia Tech scientists led by Marc Edwards, PhD, discovered Flint’s tap water was contaminated with high levels of lead. Also found were a number of other toxins, including high levels of trihalomethanes – carcinogenic byproducts from water treatment – and dangerous bacteria such as E.coli and Legionella, which is suspected of causing an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
At the time of sampling, Flint had already experienced outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease in June 2014 and May 2015, but the researchers were unaware because public health agencies did not notify the public about the outbreak.
“The legionella bacterium is unique in that it lives and thrives in water. If you control the bacteria in the water you control the spread,” noted by Janet Stout, PhD, Legionnaires’ Specialist with Special Pathogens Laboratory, Pittsburg. Further, studies at Virginia Tech “have illustrated that corrosion in drinking water pipes can stimulate the growth of Legionella,” (Amy Pruden, author of the study).
WaterToday spoke with Marc Edwards, Environmental Engineer and Professor at Virginia Tech. The son of a schoolteacher and stay-at-home mother, Edwards grew up in a farm town on Lake Erie, attended a K-12 country school and spent his teenage summers working the fields alongside immigrant farmhands. “I used to be incredibly naïve about how science can be used to justify decision-making.”
In the US, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) sets standards and regulations for the presence and levels of over 90 different contaminants in public drinking water, including E.coli, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium metals such as lead and disinfection by-products.
Edwards, who was among Time’s 100 Most Influential People; Fortune 50’s Greatest Leaders; Politico’s Top 50 Visionaries; and Foreign Policy 100 Greatest Thinkers, designed and teaches the Ethics Engineering course to PhD students at Virginia Tech. “My job as a whistle-blower is in saving humanity from itself. Flint is a culmination of 13 years of environmental scientists who tried to protect the citizens from environmental criminals.” The 13 years is a reference to his discovery of lead contaminated water in Washington D.C. Thousands of children were ingesting the neurotoxin that was coming from the lead pipes. Edwards reported his findings to the EPA and the Centre For Disease Control (CDC) but the health risks were downplayed. Edwards spent the next 6 years, his own financial resources, and risked his career working to expose the truth and the cover-up. In 2010 a congressional hearing concluded that the CDC report was “scientifically indefensible”.
“When I got the phone call from a mother in Flint, it was no surprise. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ this day would come it was ‘when’.” The mother suspected the water in Flint was the reason her children were breaking out in rashes, missing several growth milestones and becoming weak and tired. Her own hair had fallen out. The Flint Water study began after Edwards heard the mother had reported her findings based on her own independent testing of the water to city officials who reassured her that the water was fine.
Lead (in miniscule amounts) is a well-recognized neurotoxin associated with reduced IQ behavioral problems and hearing loss. Exposure to larger amounts can cause coma, convulsions and death.
Edwards and his research group not only demonstrated that the water’s lead levels were 19 times higher than the water from Detroit but that the lead was likely coming from the city’s pipes. The Flint River and its tributaries drain an agricultural region where glyphosate is heavily used on crops. The river has also served as an unofficial waste disposal site for refuse from local industries including meat packing plants and paper mills. Glyphosate contamination in the water was the likely reason the water was so effective in stripping the lead from the pipes. The increased presence of lead in drinking water is made worse by the fact that most areas are still adding fluoride to their water supplies which actually leaches lead from water pipes. “Fluorosilic acid, the chemical used by 91% of US fluoridating communities … tests showed lead three and four times higher…. A combination of chloramines and fluorosilic acid leaches lead from meters, solder, and plumbing systems.” (Richard P. Maas, PhD and Steven C. Patch PhD, co-directors of the Environmental Quality Institute, University of North Carolina).
Edwards announced his findings to a group of reporters and residents that the lead levels in thousands of homes were perilous, exceeding the standards set by WHO (World Health Organization). After months of denying the problem, state and federal officials said in October 2015 that they would restore Detroit as Flint’s water source. Water is still not drinkable in many areas due to the corrosion of the lead pipes.
Nine state and local officials were charged with criminal offenses for their role in the water crisis. However, all charges were dropped after the newly appointed attorney general appointed new prosecutors who dismissed the charges and started a new investigation from scratch. After five years the public health ramifications are still ongoing. “I just was in the fifth congressional hearing,” Edwards said.
“This has been a profound betrayal of public trust and failure of governments on all levels.”
In Edwards’ personal circle there has been betrayal by others, “I have lost friends, colleagues, environmental scientists who have crossed over. It’s all about funding.” Academia, he believes, thrives on being published and funded. “We have an engineering code of ethics: The first canon is ‘Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.’ I can’t stand to see science used to hurt people. When I realized my friends are environmental criminals – I personally don’t have another alternative than to uphold that code. When it comes down to duty versus self-preservation, science has become another weapon of tribal warfare and rising above that takes courage.”
In the classroom Edwards teaches his students, “do not engage in unethical behavior and make sure the world doesn’t change you.”
As part of the program, his PhD students in Ethics Engineering are involved in a “Public Inspired” component. Each student is required to go to into communities of the underprivileged and serve those communities in a way that helps them understand science. “The structure of all civilizations is clean water in, dirty water out. If it does not happen that way the civilization will die out. It is a global phenomenon. And it’s happening right here in small rural areas. My students have to get in there, get to know the people and serve them. Then they have to come back as story colliders.” Honest science colliding with real life.
“I love my work. I’m doing the job I was born to do. But sometimes it sucks being me.”
Edwards shares this “story collider” video of his student Jeannie Marie Purchase whose PhD research is on water lead filters:
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