Blowing the lid off the Flint Michigan water pollution crisis was a watershed moment in this country. It began as a crusade, first, just to prove there was a problem and ultimately, for public officials to address it.
But its leader, Marc Edwards, an environmental scientist at Virginia Tech, sees a larger public issue bubbling just under the surface and he’s speaking out about it.
Marc Edwards is concerned about lead in America’s water, but he’s even more worried about scientific ethics and how government responds, or doesn’t, when whistle blowers speak truth to power.
“The higher battle here,” he says, “is to stave off a dark age. If we lose the ‘truth speakers’ what is to become of us and especially what if science and engineering goes ‘post truth?' So this is something that I will sacrifice my career and my life for.”
Edwards became this passionate about environmental wrongs 14 years ago when he was blindsided by government scientists who asked him to work on a water contamination problem in D.C.
“I was hired by EPA to fix a lead problem (in the city’s water supply) and unbeknownst to me, EPA knew about this lead problem for 3 years. They were covering it up. They didn’t tell me that two brave whistle blowers scientists and engineers, who tried to warn them about the problem, had been fired for trying to tell the public for doing the right thing.”
Several years later a congressional investigation showed five government agencies colluded to cover up health harm from high lead in the water.
Edwards was horrified that, “They knew about it and that the agencies and their scientists did nothing about. including the US Centers for Disease Control, the EPA the water company, the Army Corps of Engineers and the local department of health.”
This was his watershed moment. “It was horrifying to me. In my wildest dreams, I never believed that these environmental policemen, paid to protect us, would become environmental criminals.
Edwards is telling his story on a summer morning to a room packed with students. He decided to give the seminar because he didn’t want to see them make the same mistakes he did as a young scientist.
“One of the things I’ve learned on this journey, starting when I was 40 and dangerously naïve, to the point that I was a danger to myself and society. I really didn’t know very much about ethics. I didn’t know much about scientific misconduct, I didn’t know about how science and engineering can be abused and I learned that lesson the hard way.”
The lesson was life changing for Edwards, and so was the half million-dollar prize for his work –no strings attached --awarded by the McArthur Foundation. He planned to use it the next time something like this happened. He knew it was just a matter of time.
Fast forward to late 2014 when Flint, Michigan officials, backed up by scientists at city, state and federal levels, insisted that city water, the color of weak tea. was safe to drink. Edwards and his team from Virginia Tech descended, first on officials who ignored them, refusing to actually test the water in Flint. Finally, they asked a 4th grade science class to test it – an attention getting device -- and it worked. And only at that point, did things start to change.
Today, Edwards is philosophical about the ordeal that’s become his life’s mission. “And if you want to know what motivates me, it’s shame, absolute shame that scientists and engineers could betray the public trust and hurt people. And I will not live in a world where that is allowed to happen.”
After his talk, Edward answered questions from the audience and then from people lined up to talk with him personally.
“He’s such a bad ass,” said Steve Ahn, with a twinkle in his eye. He’s a biology teacher at Holsten High School, who attended the lecture.
“I think (this discussion of) ethics is even more important than curriculum.” This is what people need to learn. “It was neat to see a pathway from science to ethics.”
But Edwards sees a huge roadblock on that pathway. Last year, he published a paper that didn’t mince words. It’s called: Academic Integrity in the 21st Century; Maintaining Ethical Standards in a Climate of Competition and Perverse Incentives.
Edwards says crises like the one on Flint cause the public to doubt what scientists and engineers tell them. And if that happens, he worries we will be in that dark age of “post truth” he fears is coming.
“We are living through a well-deserved backlash against us. Against our arrogant elitism and failures and if we don’t fix it, we’re going to get more of the same. “
But he does see signs of change. One scientist recently admitted he’d made mistakes during the Flint water crisis. That prompted Edwards to write in an email “it’s not all bad news."
Best of all, the water in Flint is fit to drink.
“It’s gone from one of the worst monitored (water supplies in the country) to the most monitored. I don’t worry about Flint but other cities that are going to become the next Flint.”
Edwards’ band of water warriors has been testing water other communities of concern around the country. Now, a $ 2 million grant from EPA itself and other funders, is making this the largest citizen science project in U. S. history.
A $1.9 million grant from EPA itself, along with other funding, is covering testing by the Virginia Tech Water warriors and others.
"It’s a victory if we show people their water is safe. It’s also a victory if we expose problems. So that’s the power of science."
Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech