How an engineer/public health whistleblower led the citizen scientists who busted Flint's water crisis

When Marc Edwards was a young Virginia tech engineer, he landed a job with Cadmus Group, an EPA subcontractor who'd been hired to investigate problems with the DC water-supply, but when he discovered a lead contamination crisis and refused to stop talking about it, he was fired.

Edwards didn't just blow the whistle on lead in the DC water supply (whose lead levels rose so high that the water was classed as "hazardous waste"), he also critiqued the EPA's cack-handed response, which actually made things (much) worse for the people who followed their advice. It became an obsession with him, something he credits to his upbringing with a father who had risked his town's disapprobation and even physical attack to speak plainly about the evidence-based need to merge its school due to the town's shrinking population as the local industry, grape farming, failed.

Edwards' reputation as a fearless water-warrior led Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters to contact him to tell him that she'd noticed that one of her twin sons' growth had been stunted after the town switched water supplies. After finding lead in a sample that Walters sent to him, Edwards sent a group of his impassioned grad students to ring doorbells in Flint, enlisting Flint's residents to systematically gather the evidence that blew the lid off the denials of the EPA and the corporate manager that Michigan governor Rick Snyder had imposed on the town.

Ben Paynter's longread about Edwards in Wired is a fascinating study in citizen science, activism, whistleblowing, civil engineering and denialism.

Knowing a crisis like this would someday come, the team had developed a playbook of what to do with abundant community cooperation. They had other tests ready to deploy, and soon figured out that the water was 20 times more corrosive than water from Detroit; it could eat through lead solders and iron mains. Flint River water was already known to be corrosive, as was chlorine, the disinfectant the city was using to clean it at the processing plant. A hydrologist might neutralize that with a standard corrosion inhibitor like orthophosphate. Michigan officials haven’t been clear about why they didn’t add it.

The team unveiled a Blame Report Card for every agency involved in the crisis. No one escaped blame. Everyone was responsible.
In mid-September, Edwards held a conference and town hall meeting in Flint to highlight the emerging problem. A student put together FlintWaterStudy.org—a website to quantify the cause so people could see what was happening. And it all had an impact. Within weeks, the city, state, and a local nonprofit spent $12 million to switch back to Detroit water.

But Edwards foresaw more trouble. The city’s eroding water mains could also be rendering municipal disinfectants useless, he realized; sloughed-off iron can bond with chlorine, neutralizing its effectiveness against germs. That would explain the rashes, staph infections, and so on. Worse, Flint’s population used to be twice as big as it is today, which means the water system was built to serve more people. Today the water tends to sit around and warm up before it gets used—making it a perfect incubator for Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. The team overnighted some chilled samples from local hospitals and college campuses back to its lab, where microbial DNA evidence proved the bacteria was widespread.

Ripple Effect [Ben Paynter/Wired]


(Image: Dan Winters)

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