VT Water Researchers to the Rescue in Flint Michigan

Jan 17, 2016

VT students and scientists pose with the assembled lead kits.
Credit Virginia Tech

The water emergency in Flint, Michigan might not have come to light without the work of a team of Virginia Tech researchers.

Toxic levels of lead in the city’s tap water were ignored by officials, until it proved there was a problem. And according to the leader of that team, Flint is just the tip of the iceberg.

Virginia Tech Environmental Engineering Professor Marc Edwards got a call from a distraught mother in Flint Michigan last year.  An EPA employee named Miguel Del Toral had gone out of his way to help her when no one else would listen.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, if Miguel had not reached out to her that children in Flint would still be drinking this water today.”

Edwards and his team of 25 researchers then spent the equivalent of 3 ‘person years’ sampling and testing the water there.  A change in the water source from a great lake to the Flint river had been sending highly corrosive water through the pipes, leaching enough lead along the way to make the water toxic. Federal law clearly states that corrosion control measures must be in place in all water systems.

“And LeAnne Walters, the mother with the lead poisoned child, actually figured out that the state was lying to the EPA about having corrosion control. She figured out on her own that they had been making false statements to EPA when in fact they were doing nothing to the water and this is totally illegal.”

And the conditions that led to this problem are not just in Flint, Michigan. Edwards calls this the biggest environmental problem out there.  To replace old lead pipes could cost a trillion dollars over the next 25 years, nation wide, that is if we can even find them all.

“Just as one example, we have 13 million lead pipes out there all around the U.S. and I wish we knew where those were. The utilities have lost the records.  They don’t even know where these lead pipes are.  If you live in a major U.S. city, especially in the northeastern United States, you might have a lead pipe going into your house and not even know it.”

Lead in water is odorless and color less but there were signs of the problem as soon as the new water system began operating in Flint.

“From the moment the switch was made people were complaining about rust pouring out of their taps. If you look at photos from that time people were going to town meetings holding up bottles of their water and they were just full of red rust, which was coming from the iron pipes, being eaten up by the water and they were just dismissed and no one would really listen."

Fortunately, EPA’s Miguel Del Toral did.  And he called the right person to check it out. Professor Edwards, a renowned water specialist who had already been honored with a MacArthur genius grant for his work, assembled his team and began testing the water in flint with help from a grant from the national science foundation. But it wasn’t nearly enough to cover the costs, which came to around $200,000.  So Edwards used discretionary funding from his Civil and Environmentally Engineering Department at Virginia Tech, and his own money.

“This is something I believe in and if in children are in harms way you pay for it you protect them and then you worry about digging out of the hole later and that’s the situation we’re in, as we all say, this has been a priceless experience we wouldn't’ trade it for anything.”

Edwards and his team have completed their work in Flint, Michigan. The National Guard was finally called in to get safe water to the people there.