We helped uncover a public health crisis in Flint, but learned there are costs to doing good science

Virginia Tech students process water samples from homes in Flint. Flint Water Study/Facebook, Author provided

Our team of more than two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tech has spent much of the past year analyzing and publicizing unsafe drinking water 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. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) messages that the water was safe, we fought to educate 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 forced 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 hard 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 standards, violated federal regulation when it did not require the city of Flint to properly treat the water – which we now know is highly corrosive – to minimize leaching from lead pipes.

Citizens in Flint could smell, taste and see that their water was contaminated almost immediately following the switch. But when they tried to bring their concerns to public officials’ attention, they were ignored, dismissed and ridiculed.

Students in the Flint Water Study pack water testing kits to send to Flint residents. Flint Water Study/Facebook, Author provided

We became involved in April 2015 when Lee Anne Walters, a Flint resident and mother of a lead-poisoned child, contacted Dr. Marc Edwards, our research adviser at Virginia Tech. After the city detected elevated lead in the Walters family’s water, 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 water.

Mrs. Walters sent us samples from her home, and we found lead levels that on average contained over 2,000 parts per billion (ppb) of lead – more than 130 times the EPA’s maximum allowable limit of 15 ppb.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children’s developing brains and nervous systems. According to health experts, there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Based on his findings and the Walters’ lead data, Mr. Del Toral wrote an internal memo to his colleagues at EPA and MDEQ in June 2015, which was ignored. When the memo was leaked to the press, MDEQ brushed off Del Toral’s and the public’s concerns with a statement that told everyone to “relax.”

We saw city officials dismissing public concerns, knew that the city was not treating 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 whether our testing was reliable. In response, Flint citizens organizing the sampling developed quality control procedures, such as taping the kits closed once samples had been collected and signing their names across the tape, to make it clear that no samples had been tampered with.

We went to Flint several times to confirm and expand these findings by taking and analyzing more water samples. Again MDEQ tried to discredit our results, calling 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 officials proposed hiring in January to test residents’ tap water. LeeAnne Walters/Flint Water Study, Author provided

Meanwhile, both MDEQ and EPA were sluggish to respond to our questions and reluctant 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 samples – including one from the Walters home – so that Flint would meet the requirements 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, state and federal officials to declare emergencies in Flint and switch back to Detroit water.

A culture of compliance

One hard lesson we learned is that people in our field – environmental engineers and water managers – helped cause Flint’s crisis.

Somewhere along the line, in deciding what compounds to regulate and how to control them, the U.S. system for regulating drinking water has become extremely complex. There are now more than 150,000 public water utilities in the United States. 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 regulated.

Individual utilities are responsible for monitoring and reporting to state agencies, 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 geared more toward meeting regulations and standards than toward protecting public health. This is especially true in programs like MDEQ’s that are “understaffed, underfunded and [have personnel] lack[ing] knowledge and experience,” in the words of Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical ethnographer and adjunct assistant professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech.

As the U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported, EPA does not have enough power or resources to properly oversee sampling that cities carry out to show they are complying with the Lead and Copper Rule. Professors Edwards and Lambrinidou and others have documented that, as a result, agencies in charge of proving that regulations are met have developed techniques for gaming the system to avoid collecting water samples that contain enough lead or copper to trigger action.

Well-known techniques that took place in Flint include preflushing water from taps 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 or older brass components that contain significant amounts of lead.

At a recent national conference, one of our team members spoke with a utility manager 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 our team member probed further, the manager acknowledged that a couple of homes in their distribution system had lead levels high enough to be of concern. However, 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 percentile is below 15 ppb. [If fewer than 10 percent of homes produce lead readings above 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 should change? Isn’t it important to inform homeowners if they are over the action level?

UM: Yeah, but that is not up to me. Our job is to follow the rules and regulations.

We are concerned by this attitude and believe we need to change it so that everyone involved is more focused on protecting public health than only complying with regulations.

Conflicting incentives for scientists

As budding academics, we are proud that our group went “all in” for Flint. We provided accurate technical information that was desperately needed, developed legitimate research questions and uncovered government wrongdoing.

We did not have a direct funding source when we got involved, and there was a real risk that we would not be able to raise money to support our work. But Dr. Edwards chose to move forward because the risk to Flint families and their children was much greater. He spent more than US$150,000 from his own discretionary research 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 very 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 undue interference. But at the same time, they are under tremendous pressures to meet metrics such as publishing papers and bringing in research dollars. This pressure can make researchers less independent and less willing to pursue roads less traveled.

We are worried that a reward structure has developed that supports mainly self-promotion 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 distinguishing 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 difference.

What scientists and engineers can do

Things have started to change in Flint, but fixing its water system will take years, and its citizens will need continued support in many areas – including nutrition, 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 broken, or at least critically flawed. Only an active and engaged public can drive reform forward, and make EPA and state agencies more responsive to fulfill their mission statement and truly protect the public.

As academic researchers, we do not always have an active role in fixing such regulatory shortcomings, but we can help influence change in unconventional ways. The 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-being of the public above all else. In doing so, we affirm Virginia Tech’s motto, “Ut prosim,” which means, “That I may serve.”