A Michigan city’s drinking water was poisoned, and government officials refused to admit it. Desperate for answers, an ailing family didn’t know where to turn. Then they found UW – trained engineer Marc Edwards, who exposed the crisis. Now they have a chance.
A few minutes before midnight one day in May 2015, Mark Edwards sat down at his computer and clicked open a new email message. The spreadsheet that popped up came from his senior research scientist, and when Edwards spotted a critical number in boldface type— 13, 2 0 0 ppb—the clean water expert nearly fell off his chair.
THAT NUMBER described the amount of toxic lead in a sample of tap water taken from the home of a lead-poisoned child more than 500 miles away in Flint, Mich. According to current U.S. safety regulations, anything more than 15 parts per billion is cause for action, though researchers say no level of lead is safe. Edwards, a veteran environmental engineer and an expert at pinpointing health hazards in drinking water, says when he opened the file, “my heart skipped a couple of beats. Not only was the lead content at 13,200 parts per billion … but even after 25 minutes of flushing water from the tap, the water was still more than 10 times higher than the EPA levels for action.”
The laboratory’s report was clear: Flint resident Lee- Anne Walters and her family were exposed to water containing so much lead, the children were at risk of developing lifelong neurological injuries. “Some of the water in the Walters samples was more than twice as toxic as the water you’d find in what the EPA would term hazardous waste,” Edwards says.
In the months prior to the testing, Walters, a stayat- home mother of four whose husband is in the Navy, watched as her children lost their hair, developed ugly rashes, suffered abdominal pain and lagged in physical and mental development. She was afraid—and the numbers now proved it—their water was poisonous. “All at once, it seemed clear that the children of Flint might be in real danger,” says Edwards. “It also seemed clear that we needed to begin testing the city’s water as soon as possible because plenty of other people were complaining about the foul-smelling, brownish water flowing out of their taps.”
Edwards had seen lead issues before. In 2003, a group of homeowners in Washington, D.C., had asked him to investigate their corroding copper pipes. His findings of lead contamination and problematic water-treatment practices led to Congressional investigations in 2004 and 2010. He won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2007 for “his vital role in ensuring the safety of drinking water and exposing the deteriorating water-delivery infrastructure in America’s largest cities,” according to the foundation.
Over 25 years as a water-quality engineer, Edwards has found issues with lead in many other communities. While the problem was much worse in Washington, D.C., he and a congressional investigation determined that the Centers for Disease Control covered the problem up by authoring “scientifically indefensible” reports.
The prospect of widespread lead poisoning among the children of Flint—a predominantly African-American city of about 100,000, where 41 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line—was terrifying. Equally troubling, public officials were downplaying the problems in the water supply, leading Edwards to suspect another “D.C.-like” cover-up of health harm. In April 2014, the bankrupt city had switched from using pristine Lake Huron water to more corrosive water from the nearby Flint River to save money. As studies would later reveal, the corrosive water was leaching lead from city pipes.
A father of two, Edwards was keenly sensitive to the havoc that lead poisoning can wreak on a child’s developing brain. A powerful neurotoxin, the heavy metal can cause learning disabilities and numerous other maladies. Staring at the frightening data on the screen, Edwards, 51, vowed to help protect Flint’s children—even if that meant once again “taking the struggle to the next level” by locking horns with state and federal environmental regulators.
MARC EDWARDS grew up in Ripley, N.Y., a small town on Lake Erie near the western-most edge of the state. His father was a teacher and his mother, a homemaker. As a teen, he spent many hours toiling alongside migrant workers in vineyards. “Living in a small, poor town like that, you were thankful to be working and earning a minimum farm wage,” he says.
By the time he enrolled as a biophysics major at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the early 1980s, Edwards was sensitive to national economic disparities. That growing social awareness was magnified by his job as a live-in aide for mentally challenged adults. “I learned a lot working in those homes and helping them with their lives,” he says. “I think that sensitized me to the plight of people less fortunate.”
Edwards arrived at the UW to pursue an environmental engineering Ph.D. in 1986. One of his first steps was what he says could have been a huge mistake. “I decided to work with Mark Benjamin as my adviser without ever meeting him,” he says. “I can still remember my first conversation with him, where I realized that this person was probably the opposite of me in many ways. And at first, I was fearful that this choice would end horribly.” But selecting Benjamin, an expert on water-treatment processes, to be his Ph.D. adviser turned out to be a stroke of luck.
Edwards soon discovered that being challenged again and again forced him to question his ideas and assumptions.
As it turned out, “Mark was exactly what I needed at that point in my life,” says Edwards. “He expanded my horizons and pushed me to explore new realms in engineering and science.” For his part, Benjamin (now professor emeritus of engineering) remembers Edwards as a “truly dedicated student who responded very well to the challenges we set for him. Yes, he liked to argue . . . and he was a good arguer! And we had some great discussions. Really, he was just a joy to work with.”
Describing their relationship, both men chuckle as they recall the 10-mile runs they took together along wooded trails. “Marc was much more of a runner than I was, and it was difficult to keep up with him at times,” says Benjamin.
“I remember being very angry that he was ten years older than me, and I would always run out of gas before he did,” counters Edwards. Benjamin is quick to point out that their respectful give-and-take was a good example of graduate education at its best. Edwards’ approach as an engineer—fighting to protect communities and their most vulnerable members—makes him “a role model for how scientists and engineers ought to function,” says Benjamin. “As an advocate for the public, he did what we should be teaching our students to do.”
WHEN LEEANNE Walters asked Edwards for his help, she was starting to think no one cared. “Thank God, he listened,” she says. “He told us how to begin collecting samples of our drinking water and arranged for us to send the samples to him. Then he came to Flint with a handpicked team of graduate students, and they settled in here and ran hundreds more tests.”
Edwards spent more than $150,000 of his own money and filed numerous Freedom of Information requests, forcing state and local officials to open up their files on drinking-water safety in Flint. He is an “amazingly generous man who has a huge heart. I really don’t know what would have happened without him,” says Walters.
Bringing his students and colleagues, most of whom traveled in their own cars and paid their own expenses, Edwards led the charge knocking on doors and collecting water samples. “It was a real ground war,” Edwards says. “The people in Flint were fighting for their lives, and those of us who’d come there from Virginia Tech [where he is a professor] were determined to help them as much as we could.”
A skilled researcher, investigator and activist, Edwards knew how to nail down the scientific data required to expose the danger in Flint. He could also help orchestrate a news-media campaign to force public officials into action. For example, after filing several FOI requests in 2015, Edwards brought to light public documents showing that Michigan health officials covered up the lead issue. “He’s very down to earth, very low key,” says Walters, remembering how Edwards sometimes slept on her living room sofa to save on expenses. “He was exactly what we needed to start waking the nation up to Flint.”
Retired public health nurse Roberta “Bobbi” Schoolfield, ’68, shares Walters’ admiration for the engineer, who was recently named one of America’s “100 Most Influential People” by Time magazine. As a Flint resident, Schoolfield witnessed the water crisis up close. “A lot of us are very grateful that Marc Edwards stepped in to help the city cope with a major public-health threat.” Though Flint has now switched to a fresh source of water and started to replace its corroded water lines (with the help of an $80 million federal emergency grant), Edwards is still troubled by the damage to the city’s infrastructure and potential long-term damage to Flint’s children.
In Flint he is serving on a committee charged with developing a longterm plan for addressing the crisis, and overseeing research for both the EPA and the state of Michigan. But there is more to do. Recent studies show that other cities—including Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia— are facing their own hazards from lead in their drinking water.
Ask Edwards to describe the key lesson from Flint, and he doesn’t hesitate. “I think what we need most right now is to focus on the pursuit of science for the public good. And I truly hope that Flint will serve as a wake-up call for all of us.”