For civil and environmental engineering alumnus Marc Edwards, ’88 M.S., ’90 Ph.D., a fascination with water started at a young age. Growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, he enjoyed fishing and keeping an aquarium. Now a professor at Virginia Tech, Edwards is a nationally recognized expert on water quality. In April 2016, he was named one of the world’s most 100 influential people by Time Magazine for his work to uncover lead poisoning during what is known as the “Flint water crisis.”
“It was humbling,” Edwards said about the honor. “To the extent that I deserved recognition, it is only because I gave voice to people who had none.”
Edwards received the honor together with pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who discovered an alarming number of children with lead poisoning in the city of Flint, Michigan. During the Flint water crisis, Edwards led a team of 25 volunteers from Virginia Tech who executed what Edwards calls the “most thorough independent study of a water supply in U.S. history.” The research team quickly uncovered excessive levels of lead in the city’s water system, which was traced back to 2014 when the city began to source its water supply from the Flint River. The corrosive river water caused lead from older pipes to leach into the drinking water, exposing as many as 12,000 children to high levels of lead.
“We collected the first samples from the home of a Flint mom who had a lead poisoned child, which showed the nature of the health threat,” Edwards said. “We collaborated with other outsiders who helped Flint residents get to the truth of what was happening to their children and city.”
In January 2016, the Governor of Michigan declared the city of Flint to be in a state of emergency, providing funding for medical care and supplies. Due to the mishandling of the water contamination by government officials, several lawsuits were filed. Criminal charges were also filed against two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees and a city water plant operator for misconduct and tampering with evidence.
Prior to the Flint water crisis, Edwards gained national attention for discovering elevated lead levels in Washington, D.C.’s water supply in the 1990s. After uncovering an inaccurate report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Edwards was pressured to stop his research and funding was discontinued. He pressed on, funding the remainder of the research himself. As a result of his six-year effort, a congressional investigation determined that the CDC engaged in “scientifically indefensible” research.
For Edwards, scientific research is a public service. Despite laws such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, which are intended to prevent disasters such as the Flint water crisis, they cannot protect against negligence and misconduct. By exposing problems, institutions have an opportunity to change for the better, Edwards said.
“At some point I decided that paying any price to expose unethical science and engineering was worth it,” Edwards said. “It is not a path for the faint of heart, and I cannot recommend it to others, but it has to be done.”
The New York Times Magazine feature