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Water study by post grad students in the USA

We helped uncover a public health crisis in Flint, but learned there are costs t
o doing good science
February 29, 2016
William Rhoads
Ph.D. Student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech
Rebekah Martin
Ph.D. Student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech
Siddhartha Roy
Ph.D. Student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech
Disclosure statement
Rebekah Martin receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Siddhartha Roy receives funding from the Water Research Foundation.
William Rhoads does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from
any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has discl
osed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, the Knight Found
ation and Barclays Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Strategic Pa
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Our team of more than two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tec
h has spent much of the past year analyzing and publicizing unsafe drinking wate
r in Flint, Michigan.
Our open science research collaboration with Flint residents revealed high levels
of lead, Legionella and damage to potable water infrastructure due to a failure
to implement corrosion control treatment.
Despite Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and U.S. Environment
al Protection Agency (EPA) messages that the water was safe, we fought to educat
e residents about severe public health risks. That work led to a declaration of
a public health emergency, first by the city of Flint and later by the state of
Michigan and President Barack Obama; garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in
relief for Flint residents; and informed a national debate on safe drinking water
in America.
Our work, by any measure, succeeded. But at the same time, this experience has f
orced us to confront broader questions.
We have learned that as well-trained scientists and engineers, we can be agents
for positive change. However, we have also learned that many obstacles make it h
ard to do good science not only in crisis situations, but every day.
Why we had to get involved
By now the details of Flint s water crisis are well-known.

In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager decided to stop buying treated Lake

Huron water from the city of Detroit, and instead to treat and distribute Flint
River water to city residents.
The MDEQ, which was responsible for ensuring that Flint s water met federal standa
rds, violated federal regulation when it did not require the city of Flint to pr
operly treat the water which we now know is highly corrosive
to minimize leachin
g from lead pipes.
Citizens in Flint could smell, taste and see that their water was contaminated a
lmost immediately following the switch. But when they tried to bring their conce
rns to public officials' attention, they were ignored, dismissed and ridiculed.
Students in the Flint Water Study pack water testing kits to send to Flint resid
ents. Flint Water Study/Facebook, Author provided
We became involved in April 2015 when Lee Anne Walters, a Flint resident and mot
her of a lead-poisoned child, contacted Dr. Marc Edwards, our research adviser a
t Virginia Tech. After the city detected elevated lead in the Walters family s wat
er, and she was refused help by MDEQ, Mrs. Walters took her case to EPA Region 5
employee Miguel Del Toral, who collaborated with our lab to sample her tap wate
Mrs. Walters sent us samples from her home, and we found lead levels that on ave
rage contained over 2,000 parts per billion (ppb) of lead more than 130 times th
e EPA s maximum allowable limit of 15 ppb.
Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children s developing brains an
d nervous systems. According to health experts, there is no safe level of lead e
Based on his findings and the Walters' lead data, Mr. Del Toral wrote an interna
l memo to his colleagues at EPA and MDEQ in June 2015, which was ignored. When t
he memo was leaked to the press, MDEQ brushed off Del Toral s and the public s conce
rns with a statement that told everyone to relax.
We saw city officials dismissing public concerns, knew that the city was not tre
ating the river water to prevent corrosion and found high lead levels in samples
from the Walters' home. We believed there was an urgent threat to public health
, and no one else seemed to be doing anything to help the citizens of Flint.
We set a plan in motion to help citizens in the best way we knew: with science.
As a first step, we mailed 300 sampling kits to citizen activists in Flint. Over
just four weeks, Flint residents helped us gather and analyze 861 water samples
more than 12 times the number that city officials collected in six months.
Our results clearly showed a widespread lead-in-water problem. MDEQ questioned w
hether our testing was reliable. In response, Flint citizens organizing the samp
ling developed quality control procedures, such as taping the kits closed once s
amples had been collected and signing their names across the tape, to make it cl
ear that no samples had been tampered with.
We went to Flint several times to confirm and expand these findings by taking an
d analyzing more water samples. Again MDEQ tried to discredit our results, calli
ng us lead magicians who could pull that rabbit out of that hat anywhere they go.
This struck a nerve. As scientists, we spend significant amounts of time making
sure our results are accurate. In response to MDEQ s claims, we became completely

transparent about what we were doing and how we were sampling for lead. Because
we took this approach, people in Flint trusted us.
Graffiti in Flint rejecting Professional Service Industries (PSI), a firm city o
fficials proposed hiring in January to test residents' tap water. LeeAnne Walter
s/Flint Water Study, Author provided
Meanwhile, both MDEQ and EPA were sluggish to respond to our questions and reluc
tant to share data with us. We filed several Freedom of Information Act requests
(FOIAs) to gain access to agency records and were alarmed by what we found.
For instance, MDEQ had misinformed EPA about having corrosion control treatment
in place. We also found that the state agency had thrown out two critical water
including one from the Walters home
so that Flint would meet the require
ments of EPA s Lead and Copper Rule. The rule, enacted in 1994, requires cities to
monitor drinking water at customer taps and take action to reduce corrosion if
certain numbers of samples contain lead or copper above specific levels.
Our findings, combined with data on blood lead levels in Flint children released
by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Medical Center, finally prompted city, stat
e and federal officials to declare emergencies in Flint and switch back to Detro
it water.
A culture of compliance
One hard lesson we learned is that people in our field
nd water managers
helped cause Flint s crisis.

environmental engineers a

Somewhere along the line, in deciding what compounds to regulate and how to cont
rol them, the U.S. system for regulating drinking water has become extremely com
plex. There are now more than 150,000 public water utilities in the United State
s. Our National Primary Drinking Water Standards cover more than 80 contaminants
, and EPA is reviewing some 100 others to determine whether they should also be
Individual utilities are responsible for monitoring and reporting to state agenc
ies, which in turn report to EPA regional offices. With this segregated approach
and so many things on their radars, a culture has developed that seems to be ge
ared more toward meeting regulations and standards than toward protecting public
health. This is especially true in programs like MDEQ s that are understaffed, und
erfunded and [have personnel] lack[ing] knowledge and experience, in the words of
Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical ethnographer and adjunct assistant professor o
f science and technology studies at Virginia Tech.
As the U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported, EPA does not have eno
ugh power or resources to properly oversee sampling that cities carry out to sho
w they are complying with the Lead and Copper Rule. Professors Edwards and Lambr
inidou and others have documented that, as a result, agencies in charge of provi
ng that regulations are met have developed techniques for gaming the system to a
void collecting water samples that contain enough lead or copper to trigger acti
Well-known techniques that took place in Flint include preflushing water from ta
ps the night before sampling and using small-mouthed bottles, which artificially
lowers lead concentrations in samples, as well as failing to identify and test
homes known to have sources of lead in their plumbing from lead services lines o
r older brass components that contain significant amounts of lead.
At a recent national conference, one of our team members spoke with a utility ma
nager about how his utility sampled for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule
. The manager was proud that his utility had never found a violation. But when o

ur team member probed further, the manager acknowledged that a couple of homes i
n their distribution system had lead levels high enough to be of concern. Howeve
r, he argued that the utility did not need to report these high levels:
Flint Water Study Team Member (FWS): So, do you inform the homeowners if the
lead levels are high?
Utility Manager (UM): We don t need to inform homeowners if the 90th percentil
e is below 15 ppb. [If fewer than 10 percent of homes produce lead readings abov
e 15 ppb, the Lead and Copper Rule does not require the utility to take action.]
FWS: Yes, but, if you were a parent in a home which was tested over 15 pbb,
wouldn t you like to know?
UM: I understand what you are saying, but that is not how the rule works.
FWS: I know, but would you agree that it is a problem and that the rule shou
ld change? Isn t it important to inform homeowners if they are over the action lev
UM: Yeah, but that is not up to me. Our job is to follow the rules and regul
We are concerned by this attitude and believe we need to change it so that every
one involved is more focused on protecting public health than only complying wit
h regulations.
Conflicting incentives for scientists
As budding academics, we are proud that our group went all in for Flint. We provid
ed accurate technical information that was desperately needed, developed legitim
ate research questions and uncovered government wrongdoing.
We did not have a direct funding source when we got involved, and there was a re
al risk that we would not be able to raise money to support our work. But Dr. Ed
wards chose to move forward because the risk to Flint families and their childre
n was much greater. He spent more than US$150,000 from his own discretionary res
earch and personal funds to cover our costs, and the National Science Foundation
later backed us with a $50,000 RAPID Response grant.
If Dr. Edwards had not been able and willing to do this, people in Flint might v
ery well still be getting unsafe Flint River water from their taps.
Award presented to Marc Edwards and the Flint Water Study research group by the
city of Flint. Flint Water Study/Facebook, Author provided
Academic researchers are supposed to contribute to the public good, and scholars
are supposed to have academic freedom to explore important questions without un
due interference. But at the same time, they are under tremendous pressures to m
eet metrics such as publishing papers and bringing in research dollars. This pre
ssure can make researchers less independent and less willing to pursue roads les
s traveled.
We are worried that a reward structure has developed that supports mainly self-p
romotion and dissuades the altruistic motives to do science for the public good
that attracted many of us to the profession in the first place.
Our experience in Flint has shown us some unpleasant costs of doing good science
. It can mean burning bridges to potential funding, and damage to your name and
professional reputation. There also are emotional costs associated with distingu
ishing right from wrong in moral and ethical gray areas, and personal costs when

you begin to question yourself, your motives and your ability to make a differe
What scientists and engineers can do
Things have started to change in Flint, but fixing its water system will take ye
ars, and its citizens will need continued support in many areas
including nutrit
ion, health care and education to manage the effects of lead poisoning over the
coming decades.
From our perspective, it is hard not to feel that the regulatory system is broke
n, or at least critically flawed. Only an active and engaged public can drive re
form forward, and make EPA and state agencies more responsive to fulfill their m
ission statement and truly protect the public.
As academic researchers, we do not always have an active role in fixing such reg
ulatory shortcomings, but we can help influence change in unconventional ways. T
he Flint crisis showed that listening to the public is critical if we wish to do
our jobs better as scientists and engineers and serve society.
Engineers don t take oaths similar to medical doctors' Hippocratic Oath, but maybe
we should. As a start, we have all made personal and professional pledges that
include the first Canon of Civil Engineering: to uphold the health and well-bein
g of the public above all else. In doing so, we affirm Virginia Tech s motto, Ut pr
osim, which means, That I may serve.
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Oldest Newest
Nile Stanton
Adjunct Lecturer, Global Affairs, University of New England, United States
THANK YOU students for writing up this important story and for all the great
work your fellow teammates and profs have done for the people of Flint, Michiga
n! You are champions in the struggle for justice.
If he s not already done so, I hope that Michael Moore might see fit to person
ally reward the good Dr. Edwards and/or make a significant donation to your depa
rtment to support similar work when needed in the future, an emergency fund of s
orts initially drawn upon for a well-deserved party for you all.
Your story here is a deeply inspirational one. Bless you for your good deeds
8 days ago
Mugly Wumple
logged in via Google
I d like to thank the authors of this enlightening article, Dr. Marc Edwards a
nd all the students who participated in this essential research. I was especiall
y moved by the oath to uphold the health and well-being of the public above all e
lse. I hope such an oath will become widespread. An action like this can help com

bat the increasing amount of junk science done to protect of the polluters.See h
8 days ago
Andrew Maynard
Director, Risk Innovation Lab, Arizona State University
Thank you for both your work in Flint, and in highlighting the institutional
ized challenges scientists and engineers face in serving often marginalized comm
It s deeply discouraging to read how the system and the people who maintain it
can conspire to crush any sense of civic responsibility out of early career sci
entists and engineers - sadly, in my experience, this is the norm rather than th
e exception. Kudos to all three of you and the VT team for overcoming this - al
though why scientists and engineers who reach out to disenfranchised communities
should face grief as a result is, quite frankly, beyond me.
What worries me even more is the many, many early career scientists who don t
dare to do what they feel is right, because of the fear of personal and professi
onal consequences.
This needs to change.
8 days ago
Mikki Morrissette
logged in via Facebook
This is excellent. I ve been promoting Flint as the story about how residents
can use data, imagery and storytelling to make things VISIBLE that others prefer
to remain invisible. Part of the Sustainable We work I m doing. Collaborators welco
me to help me tell the stories better . find my contact form at MPLSGreen.com.
8 days ago
Richard Katz
The way this works is, If one (or more) of the Michigan Department of Enviro
nmental Quality = MDEQ employees who lied are held personally responsible enough
to be sent to jail for their misdeeds, then something will change
ALL similarly
situated officials all over the USA will experience a sudden attitude shift, an
d start getting real scrupulous about being a good guy instead of a guy who game
s the system; who goes along to get along. If no one goes to jail, then nothing
will change.
On another note
can you believe how dumb we all were back in the day, instal
ling lead plumbing? Did they really use pipes = service lines made of pure lead ?
(that isn t mentioned in this article; it s mentioned in an article that s linked from
this article, the link being alarmed .) Jeez, didn t the Romans make the same mista
ke? I mean, that s even dumber than burning coal and gasoline enough to kill all
of ourselves. (Funny, I ve never actually seen a plumbing pipe made out of pure l
ead; seen a lot of lead that was poured around cast iron pipe to lead it into plac
e and make a seal; and of course the solder that was used on copper pipe used to
have a LOT of lead in it, back in the day. Mostly though you have to really wo
nder how it is that we call it plumbing and the Latin for lead is plumbum. We tho
ught that was the way to go. Not that I think we re doing a whole lot better now.
We re a pretty unscientific bunch, generally.
Read more
8 days ago

Nile Stanton
Adjunct Lecturer, Global Affairs, University of New England, United Stat
In reply to Richard Katz
Absolutely. Thankfully, this article and the materials written up by Pro
fessor Edwards provide excellent leads that a prosecutor can use to gather solid
evidence to make a compelling case of gross negligence or worse. Let"s hope tha
t some brave prosecutor will jump all over this.
8 days ago
archie h. bailey
No question about it many individuals and teams made significant contributio
ns to the water disaster in Flint. Over looked, however, is the work of a local
reporter who deserves significant recognition. Flint Journal Mlive reporter Ron
Fonger is a combination of Woodward and Bernstein. He was the first to report on
the growing awareness that something was seriously wrong. He dug and dug and du
g for the facts of what was really happening.. He did so while a mayoral campaig
n raged. His editor never held him back even though the paper had endorsed the i
ncumbent who was defeated. The city s establishment wanted to re-elect the incumbent
. Fonger was probably lied to, pressured to cool it and given plenty of misinforma
tion. We now know that for a fact. But nothing deterred Fonger from getting the
facts and informing the public. For that he should be commended.
8 days ago
Terrence Treft
thanks for the interesting article.
as someone who lives in a small town that is a super-fund site, i am complet
ely sympathetic to the perils facing people in flint. in my town, an internation
al corporation had a manufacturing and research facility where waste products we
re simply poured down the city sewers. the chemicals eventually leached into the
city wells. the company outsourced all their work overseas and skipped town wit
hout even a sorry, my bad .
but since you are putting the onus on scientists and engineers for good scien
ce , just what do you mean by good? that a remarkably broad, ambiguous and emotion
al word. and, should you not make a distinction between science and engineering
(technology)? they are not the same, though most folks inter-change them.
for example, analyzing self-reported data from resident supplied water sampl
es is not scientific for the authenticity of the samples is unknown. thus, the r
esults of the study cannot be replicated or falsified. yes, i understand your te
am did follow-up site sampling, but the 861 samples (provided by activists) are
not sterile.
lastly, while our clean water supply is the envy of much of the world, i am
concerned about water safety in general. for example, just what are the anti-cor
rosive chemicals added to municipal water supplies? what are the short and long
term consequences of exposure? sounds as if our municipal water supplies are les
s pure and more like a chemical cocktail. hold the olive.
8 days ago
Chris Thaler
In reply to Terrence Treft

Caution is the byword in all activities which entail purchasing from pri
vate suppliers.
I live in an area in Australia where the local water is absolutely impec
cable & like most water supplies here contains added fluoride for protection aga
inst dental decay. We still choose to run our drinking & cooking water through
a dual stage filter which removes all particulates above its defined micron leve
l & also removes all hydrocarbons etc. but leaved the fluoride in.
The filters are replaced every twelve months at a cost of approx. $60.00
AUD, ($45.00USD). This is very cheap insurance.
The faith in authorities is completely eroded (corroded) these days due
to continual tampering with evidence in support of leaving faulty installations
unrepaired or supply systems modified, primarily as a cost saving measure.
We need more quality engineering reporting such as provided in Flint and
action taken against perpetrators of fraudulent testing and certification of ut
ilities products.
We have a saying in Australia which roughly translates into American as
8 days ago
Carter Copeland

Thank you for your tenacity. You did a great service for the people of Flin
t and increased awareness of water quality everywhere.
As an engineer, however, I am concerned about the direction of the very diff
icult public policy issues that are floating throughout your article. First, th
e shear size of the sampling protocols is daunting. Hundreds of samples per sys
tem with 80-180 tests per sample and over 150,000 systems creates a mind bogglin
g database and mindset for even the best intentioned managers.
Second, your article suggests the source of the of the lead is from leaching
from the piping system but your article did not rule out the possibility of le
ad from the Flint River. Why is the Flint River substantially more corrosive th
an Lake Huron?
Lastly, if the public side of a water system is laden with lead piping that
needs to be replaced, how does it get financed by a community in decline and is
the community responsible for lead in the homeowner s piping. Scaling this proble
m to the nation is even more daunting.
Great work!
7 days ago