Marc A. Edwards
ENR 10/17/16 p. 32
After testing water samples from Flint, Mich., this Virginia Tech professor focused national attention on the dangerous levels of lead in the water and in children’s blood.
As an undergraduate in biophysics contemplating graduate school, Marc Edwards visited John Hopkins University and asked the first civil engineer he met what civil engineers do.
That civil engineer, Abel Wolman, the father of modern clean-water supply, told Edwards, “If it weren’t for people like me, people like you would be dead.” Edwards was hooked.
Today, Edwards is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, but he may be better known for bringing to light dangerous levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Mich., and Washington, D.C.
Flint resident LeeAnne Walters contacted Edwards in 2015, after her tap water turned orange and began making her children sick. Edwards had Walters FedEx water samples to him. The water had some of the worst lead levels he had ever seen. He raised the alarm with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which deferred to the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality. Frustrated, Edwards packed a team of Virginia Tech researchers into his wife’s minivan and drove 544 miles to Flint. In testing, the group discovered that, throughout Flint, the water had dangerous levels of lead; in some cases, it qualified as hazardous waste. Local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha also found that the city’s children had unsafe levels of lead in their blood. Edwards demanded attention. Edwards and his team created a website about the water problems and started filing Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what officials knew about the water.
Hanna-Attisha says Edwards “risked everything” when he started publicizing what was going on at Flint. “Marc is the first person I’ve known who is not a pediatrician who cares as much about children as we do,” she says.
But Edwards’ work didn’t end there. The city hired him to oversee its water testing, and he was appointed by Michigan’s governor to work with a committee to fix Flint’s water problem. He testified in front of Congress multiple times last year about the failures in Flint. And he continues to highlight problems with the nation’s drinking-water supply—repeatedly saying that Flint is not the only city with a drinking-water crisis.
“There is a price to be paid for scientific misconduct, and, unfortunately, it is borne by the poorest amongst us, not by its perpetrators,” he told the House Oversight committee last year. “We have to get this problem fixed—and fast—so that these agencies can live up to their noble vision and once again be worthy of the public trust.”