Virginia Tech expert helped expose Flint water crisis

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Four months after Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, Lee-Anne Walters’ family began to experience strange health issues.

It started in August 2014 when Walters’ four children and her husband got rashes on their skin and started losing hair. Then, her 15-year-old son became so nauseated, dizzy and in pain that he couldn’t go to school for three weeks.

The worst of it came when one of her toddler twin sons fell behind his brother in weight and developed a bright red rash with scaly patches on his body after bathing. He was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Walters said she repeatedly sought help from city and state officials, who told her nothing was wrong even though drinking water across the city was coming out of taps looking, smelling and tasting bad.

Then, she made a move that caused a seismic shift in Flint’s water crisis: She called Marc Edwards – a Virginia Tech professor and expert on water quality. Edwards became an advocate and watchdog, presenting the science that ultimately led officials to stop using the Flint River as the city’s drinking water source.

Lee-Anne Walters does a water test to check the amount of chlorine in the water for long time Flint resident Jan Berryman on her tap water on Jan. 20 at Berryman's home in Flint.

The civil engineering professor tested Walters’ water last spring and found lead levels he had not seen in 25 years. In response, Edwards assembled a team of Virginia Teach researchers, traveled to Flint to test the water, set up a website and paid $150,000 out of his own pocket to get the work done.

He even dug up documents showing state leaders knew last summer there was lead contamination in Flint’s water.

“Nobody else was listening, nobody else cared, nobody else was taking this seriously,” said Walters, who met this past week with federal environmental officials in Washington about Flint’s water problems. “But Marc was listening, and he was interested and concerned about what was happening. Without him, I don’t think we would be where we are in this.”

Edwards’ work ultimately showed widespread lead contamination in Flint’s water even though state leaders insisted it was safe. His work produced a domino effect: an analysis of state data done in September by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center showed elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint children.

This prompted state officials in October to reconnect to Detroit’s water system, with Lake Huron as its source. Gov. Rick Snyder apologized, the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality resigned, and officials announced a spike in Legionnaires' disease cases in Genesee County during 2014-15.

In last week’s State of the State speech, Snyder detailed how DEQ staff allowed the city to draw Flint River water without using corrosion controls to prevent lead-soldered pipes from leaching the toxic metal into Flint’s water supply.

Hanna-Attisha said Edwards’ work prompted her research.

“He was central to all of this,” she said. “But he didn’t have to do any of it. He volunteers his time. I have never met another person outside of my profession who cares as much about children as he does.”

Many add that it was Edwards’ work that brought state and national attention to the Flint crisis.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama pledged $80 million in federal aid to Michigan, mostly to repair Flint’s water infrastructure, on top of $5 million emergency assistance allocated earlier.

“Marc Edwards played a pivotal role in bringing this public health crisis to light,” said Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “Him and his team at Virginia Tech expended an incredible amount of effort and resources to find out the truth about lead in Flint’s water and bring it to the public’s attention.”

The Virginia Tech professor emerged last April, a year after water troubles began in Flint, home to 100,000 residents. Plagued for years by other crises such as General Motors’ pullout and the nation’s highest murder rate, Flint was in the midst of a downtown resurgence when its state-appointed emergency manager recommended saving money by switching the source of its drinking water.

Years of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate better rates with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department led officials from cash-strapped Flint to begin temporarily using the Flint River until a regional water authority was completed. When it switched over on April 30, 2014, Flint funneled the river water to the municipal treatment plant.

But unlike the water it bought from Detroit, Flint failed to use corrosion control treatments in the river water.

Soon after, residents such as Walters started to notice changes. Besides the skin rashes and hair losses, Walters was especially concerned about one of her twin boys, Gavin, then 3. He and Garrett were always in sync developmentally but suddenly Gavin wasn’t eating right or gaining the same amount of weight.

Walters suspected the water was the culprit. In early February, the city tested her water, which showed elevated iron content. Officials told her not to be concerned.

But in late February, tests showed lead in her water for the first time. The next day, she took her children to the doctor to get tested. Results showed that Gavin had lead poisoning, while two of Walters’ other children had exposure.

Concerned about other Flint children since lead poisoning can cause mental and physical impairments, Walters tried working with local, state and federal officials to pinpoint the lead. But she was frustrated by the response.

Her research led her to call Edwards — one of the world’s foremost water quality experts. Though he is an academic, he is also a watchdog who helped expose and correct lead contamination in the Washington, D.C., water system, regarded among the nation’s worst. The MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius grant” in 2007 for his role.

Over the phone, Edwards walked Walters through the collection of 30 bottles of water from her tap, which he analyzed. The results showed lead levels that were two times the amount found in hazardous waste.

“These were worst results I had seen in 25 years in doing this work,” Edwards said. “One glass of water could cause a child’s lead blood level to elevate above the lead poisoning threshold by eight times.”

Edwards provided the data — which ranged from a low of 200 parts per billion to a high of 13,200 ppb — to Environmental Protection Agency officials. Federal regulations require corrective action at lead levels of 15 parts per billion.

He expected the issue to be taken care of, but nothing happened. In August 2015, Edwards said Walters relayed her impressions from a meeting of officials where it appeared as though federal and state agencies were trying to cover up what they knew.

“We sounded an alarm, formed a team, and went ‘all in for Flint,’” he said

Edwards assembled a group of 25 researchers. They applied to the National Science Foundation for an emergency grant and sent 300 lead sampling kits to Flint.

On Aug. 17, Edwards was among a team of five who drove 11 hours from Virginia Tech to Flint to conduct a broader examination of the water. Walters let Edwards stay on the couch in her family’s living room, and he sampled their water all night. Meanwhile, the rest of the team tested Flint and Detroit water.

After analyzing the water they collected and 277 sample kits that were returned, the research in Flint showed high levels of lead even in relatively low-risk homes – essentially those without lead service lines.

Meanwhile, Edwards filed about 10 Freedom of Information Act requests to find out what government officials knew and when. Among the most damaging was an email that emerged in January from Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, indicating that state leaders were aware in July of the Flint water issue.

Edwards is wrapping up his work but will be in Flint next month to be part of a class offered by the University of Michigan-Flint on the city’s water crisis.

Though some credit him with changing the course of Flint’s water crisis, he said many others were involved.

“Everything that was done was critical to the final outcome,” Edwards said. “Everyone outside contributed something to make this miracle happen to overcome the voice of these very powerful agencies.”