When the city of Flint, Michigan, was devastated by a water contamination crisis that captured national attention, Virginia Tech engineers had to do more than fix the problem — they had to rebuild trust with science. Now they're doing it across the nation.
Keri Webber doesn’t drink tap water anymore.
In 2014, her family’s daily routine was pretty standard. Like many in the United States, the Webbers used water at home without much thought. They drank a glass or more at meals, brushed teeth, and took medicine. In between, they refilled bowls for their dogs and cats.
In 2015, Mike Webber, Keri’s husband, noticed changes in his health. He wondered if it was related to the water, as news of health concerns surged around their Michigan city.
Meanwhile in Virginia, graduate students were listening to Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford University Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. In class, they were hearing about his experience fighting officials and water utilities in Washington, D.C., over lead-tainted water that had flowed from taps in homes, schools, and businesses for years.
This injustice was, unfortunately, just the beginning, he told the students. Though he didn’t know when, he knew it was only a matter of time before a similar crisis would happen again.
And it did. This time it was in Flint.
In April 2014, the city’s water source changed. Government officials had already approved the move, meant as a cost-saving measure to ease the city’s burdened economy.
By fall, voices of alarmed citizens permeated city council meetings, living rooms, and churches. Protests occupied streets.
One of the greatest triumphs of modern civil engineering is easy access to clean drinking water, now a hallmark of this country. But in Flint, the community was observing discolored water as it streamed in kitchens, school drinking fountains, and businesses. Simultaneously, many were experiencing fatigue and gastrointestinal and respiratory problems even if they weren’t finding anything out of the ordinary with their water.
“Our water was clear,” said Webber. “So I thought it was fine.”
As Edwards still explains in the graduate course, Engineering Ethics and the Public, in water lead is tasteless and odorless, virtually undetectable. As a result, residents in the nation’s capital from 2002-04 didn’t know their water was potentially toxic. So, he tells students, it is the responsibility of scientists and engineers to monitor water quality and to notify the public immediately of contamination.
Mismanaged science, however, leaves people fending for themselves when they should be able to rely on government experts who are responsible for drinking water safety.
In Flint, the cost-saving decision to switch from using Detroit-owned water to treating locally available Flint River water became a citywide health hazard when it was coupled with a significant scientific oversight — failure to implement federally mandated chemical corrosion control, which led to iron, lead, and copper corroding and seeping into water from old pipes and certain plumbing.
As many residents found out later, iron was responsible for the discolored water they were observing. Lead was responsible for elevating blood lead levels in people and pets, which has long-term health effects, as it mimics calcium and settles in bones, hitting minors and seniors especially hard.
Despite months of Flint citizen complaints about water quality and health, city and state officials did not listen. What then followed was a massive citizen science effort, launched by Flint residents in collaboration with Virginia Tech.
In September 2015, Edwards and graduate student Siddhartha Roy visited Flint to share what they had found about the city’s water, confirming residents’ experiences — and fears.
“That’s when we started testing with Virginia Tech,” said Webber, who first met Edwards outside Flint City Hall. She was attending a press conference held by a group of Flint residents and activists to find out what was happening. By then, her concern about the water problem had snowballed into panic, as lead had shown up on her youngest daughter’s bone scans while she was undergoing medical treatment.
From then on, Webber and her family, including her daughters Vicki, 17, and Stephanie, 21, began testing their water, because they knew “they had someone to trust,” she said.
Webber is now part of a core group of Flint residents who have since monitored the city’s water in collaboration with Edwards’ Flint Water Study team, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Michigan’s Department of Environment Quality.
The most recent round of citizen-led sampling confirms results by the state of Michigan that Flint water is meeting federal standards in the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which requires that 90 percent of taps tested have 15 parts of lead per billion or lower. As there is no safe level of lead, Edwards and others are involved in ongoing conversations to revise this threshold, and Flint residents are still being provided filters. Currently, the state of Michigan is reviewing new proposed legislation, co-written by Edwards, to lower this value.
Edwards encourages students in his research group and ethics class to visit Flint to meet its people and to hear firsthand stories of their experiences. He pushes them to understand what happens when scientists don’t uphold the first canon of civil engineering which, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, is to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”
A significant component of his teaching philosophy, the ethics class – co-developed and co-taught until 2013 by Yanna Lambrinidou, adjunct faculty member at Virginia Tech who worked with Edwards on the D.C. water crisis – is learning to listen. In the cases of Flint and Washington, D.C., this has meant listening to the people at the ends of the pipes.
“No one can tell the story of Flint residents better than Flint residents themselves,” said Maggie Carolan, a Virginia Tech senior studying water resources, policy, and management in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Carolan is currently taking ethics with Edwards, and has been an interdisciplinary member of the Flint Water Study team since its initial call to action.
She and now almost 40 other students and faculty share a deep connection with citizens in Flint — a hard-fought sense of trust built by their collaboration that is palpable and real. Each time visitors from Virginia Tech head to Flint, they become part of this unique group, a lasting friendship and warmth where orange and maroon are welcome.
“Marc saved our lives,” Webber said. “There aren’t many people who can say that.”
What ultimately happens when trust is lost, particularly in relation to science, which relies on observation and evidence, is irreparable damage, argues Edwards. This takes years to rebuild.
“If just a few scientists are untrustworthy, as will always be the case, one can argue it is a few bad apples —most of us will rationally continue to trust science as a whole,” Edwards wrote in an email last fall. “But if whole groups of scientists misbehave together, especially government scientists as was the case in D.C. and Flint, the problem is then systemic and cultural. At that point, what separates us from professions for whom truth is supposedly less valued? As scientists, truth is our product, trust is our brand.”
Scientific knowledge is power
Webber is only one of many who are hesitant to drink tap water in Flint. This is not likely going to change anytime soon, even though recent test results indicate the city’s municipal water meets state and federal standards.
One way to start rebuilding trust is through education. Last spring, a group of students from Virginia Tech spent spring break working with more than 1,000 students across 13 different Flint schools and community organizations. They teamed up with LeeAnne Walters and her family and with other science and engineering graduate students from the University of Michigan to teach kids about the science behind the water crisis.
“The biggest obstacle [for the students] is re-establishing that trust, as they still see the water is an issue,” said Eric Strommer, a middle school teacher at Holmes STEM Academy in Flint.
Each visit to a school or community organization began with a presentation that shared the story of the water crisis through the lens of the scientific method.
William Rhoads, then a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering working with Edwards, led the presentations.
“When you all knew something was wrong, you asked questions,” he said during one presentation, pointing out the residents who, along with citizen scientists and activists like LeeAnne Walters, helped expose the crisis. And, as such, they used the scientific method as a way of asking questions and finding solutions. In the future, he encouraged, they could use it again to make sense of water quality in their homes and of experiences in their daily lives.
The presentations were followed by five breakout sessions, each corresponding to main concepts related to water treatment and Flint-specific contamination. At one station, students used pipettes, a common laboratory practice, to test for chlorine, a common chemical used to treat water for bacteria. In the process, the Flint students learned why chlorine is used, what happens when it enters the distribution system, and why it didn’t effectively target bacteria in Flint water during the crisis.
Other hands-on sessions addressed lead’s invisibility in water, how boiling increases lead concentration (as it doesn’t evaporate), pH, pipe composition, and corrosion control.
These small-group sessions also allowed time for Flint students to share their experiences with the graduate students.
“The visit was great because the Virginia Tech students sat down with them and got at their level,” said Strommer. “Being able to talk with kids gives them a voice, which is always important. They need to be heard, and this gave them a way to share what they learned and experienced.”
Offering Flint students knowledge to assess their own situations and make informed decisions also served to counter adverse stories of irreversible damage surrounding the health impacts of lead in children.
Thanks to Flint, the nation will benefit
"Thanks to you guys,” Rhoads told the students in March, with a United States map behind him, “we are now having a national conversation about water.”
Thanks to Flint, we now know that many other American cities have dated infrastructure. And like Flint, other cities suffer from environmental justice issues, leaving portions of populations with water infrastructure and quality that needs intervention. But, unlike Flint, these cities are less fortunate because their water story is just beginning. For this reason, U.S. Water Study was born.
With the example of the Flint Water Study team, Edwards has formed U.S. Water Study to serve other cities and communities based on the Flint model — a citizen science-based process in which Edwards and his team work directly with citizens to investigate all forms of water contamination related to public health nationwide.
“The goal is to highlight issues we are finding all around the country so we can inform communities as well as policies that should serve those communities,” Edwards said.
On the local level, the project will empower communities with scientific data and insights, and potentially tell their story through Virginia Tech communications platforms and through local and national media. This includes disseminating information and providing educational materials as appropriate.
Current projects include investigations of well water following hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, and water contamination in Denmark, South Carolina; Enterprise, and New Orleans, Louisiana; and Wake County, North Carolina.
Back in Flint, similar reconstruction is underway. When she’s not delivering bottled water to homes around the city, Webber is answering calls from folks in other cities and states. People who have heard the Flint story are reaching out, wanting to test their water.
Webber directs them to their local municipal utilities for water testing kits if they are available. Once they receive a kit, she reviews the sampling instructions with them, making sure they have bottles with a large mouth to capture heavy flow from the tap, in a size large enough to collect enough from the first draw.
When appropriate, Webber also ensures people know to not use the water for several hours ahead of sampling, so as not to dilute any materials that may have accumulated during that time.
If you ask Webber how she knows the proper protocol — and knows it so well she can comfortably empower others to follow it — she laughs.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “Oh, I don’t know. It might have something to do with Virginia Tech.”