What would you do if the water in your house was brown?
For months, residents of Flint, Michigan, suspected the water coming from their faucets was unsafe to drink. Following a switch in the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014 to save the city money, residents began to notice a strange taste and brown hue.
After a falsified city government report, included below, claimed that there was no contamination, a volunteer Virginia Tech research team proved that alarming levels of the neurotoxin lead were present in Flint’s drinking water.
The residents and researchers fought an uphill battle convincing the Flint government that a crisis was at hand.
“They told me I was a liar if I was telling people that this was water from my tap and I was stupid if I thought people were going to believe me,” said Flint resident LeeAnne Walters, whose 3-year-old son was diagnosed with lead poisoning. “That’s when I decided I had to get the science behind it because you can’t argue with science.”
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) also fought the findings, telling the media that the Virginia Tech research team “(pulls) that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go,” implying that the researchers results were no more than an illusion.
Earlier this month, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint.
After receiving water samples from residents’ homes, Virginia Tech researchers found elevated levels of iron in the water. Iron levels were high because, according to Walters, the MDEQ was not treating the water with an anti-corrosive agent. Because this water was highly corrosive, lead was being released into the water from the city’s lead pipes.
The research team at Virginia Tech consists of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, research scientists and principal investigators. The team has received extensive national attention throughout the past few months. The study has been featured on CNN, The Daily Show, NBC News, The Washington Post, CBS News and much more.
“The research team, including all of our partners, focused on one thing, and that’s protecting the public welfare,” said Marc Edwards, civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech and one of the principal investigators for the study. “I wish that everyone could experience something so pure at least once in their lifetime.”
According to Siddhartha Roy, communications director for the research team at Virginia Tech, the team came together over pizza.
“We were out for pizza and Marc was telling us that this was happening,” Roy said. “We didn’t think that anything would happen unless we had scientific data and could go out and actually do something. Everyone said yes.”
Researchers involved in this study did not always receive positive attention. Once the team published its findings, state officials were in denial.
“Virginia Tech was ridiculed in the media,” Roy said. “Our reputation was made fun of in that we did not know what we were talking about.”
“It got heated, but the people in Flint had our backs, and we had their backs,” Edwards said. “We had the truth, too.”
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, discovered elevated levels of lead in the blood samples of Flint children. Her research was also ridiculed.
“When we released our research findings, (the state) refuted it and called me an unfortunate researcher who was causing near hysteria,” Hanna-Attisha said. “The researchers, the independent investigators, had been attacked.”
Hanna-Attisha also indicated that everyone involved in the study holds Edwards in high regard for his work.
“It’s been such an honor working with Dr. Edwards,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It has been so refreshing to meet somebody else who cares as much for the children as a pediatrician does. Here is a person who volunteered hours and hours on this issue for children. It’s been really rewarding and one of the bright spots of the story.”
The research team emphasized that the residents of Flint were just as much a part of the team as they were.
“(Walters) and the other residents coordinated this massive sampling effort, and every one of the people on our team felt they did a better job than we could have done,” Edwards said. “We really unleashed the scientists in normal people. After all, science is about achieving a public good.”
Edwards got acquainted with residents while he studied their water.
“I became best friends with LeeAnne Walters,” Edwards said. “She let me stay on her sofa the first night we went to town. I stayed up all night sampling her water while she and her family slept.”
According to Walters, the residents of Flint are grateful for the Virginia Tech researchers.
“From the bottom of my heart and from all of the citizens in Flint, we thank Marc Edwards and the Virginia Tech team for everything that they have done,” Walters said. “It is very apparent in this who is trusted and who is not. The only people trusted by the citizens at this point are at Virginia Tech.”
The researchers worked hard to expose the truth about Flint’s water, but their work is not done yet. Legionnaire’s disease, a fatal form of pneumonia affecting the residents, is an ongoing issue.
“Legionnaire’s disease is connected to the water,” Hanna-Attisha said. “This corrosive water that wasn’t treated with corrosion control not only leached lead from lead plumbing, but it also leached iron from iron plumbing. When you have iron in the water, it eats up your chlorine, and you need chlorine because it’s your disinfectant. The iron in the water also serves as a nutrient or a pool for that bacteria to grow.”
In the meantime, the Michigan National Guard has been distributing bottled water and filters to residents. Additionally, President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint. This allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide necessary funding and equipment.
Walters continues to push for change around the nation. She will be traveling to Washington, D.C., to fight for her cause.
“In November, I testified against the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) about the recommendations that they are making to the EPA for their lead and copper rule,” Walters said. “What they are suggesting will weaken an already broken system. It gives the potential for what just happened to Flint to happen throughout the United States.”
The research team attributes the progress of Flint’s water study to the group effort.
“It’s this coalition of scientists, doctors, researchers, journalists and especially citizens who have worked tirelessly to make this happen,” Roy said.
“Amidst the tragedy, it’s also an amazing story of heroism,” Edwards said. “It’s all of the people who had to stand up to make this happen. I think there’s something in it that speaks to why we all want to be scientists and engineers.”
The research team will be holding a talk on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. in Quillen Auditorium at Goodwin Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Further information about the research team can be found at http://flintwaterstudy.org.