The engineer who uncovered the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan – where the water was toxic enough to give kids brain damage – doesn't even live in Michigan.
His name is Marc Edwards, and he teaches engineering at Virginia Tech, more than 500 miles away. Marc started investigating water pollution in Flint last August. But he got his start more than a decade ago, in Washington, DC, when he discovered high levels of lead in that city's water.
In DC no one would listen to him. He lost lucrative contracts and spent thousands of dollars – of his own money – sampling the water to prove it was contaminated even when the government insisted it was safe. In the end, he prevailed and the water was cleaned up. But not before thousands of kids were exposed to dangerously high amounts of lead.
This week, we talk to Edwards about his crusade to make our water safe. Getting the science right turned out to be just the beginning of a fight. The harder part was figuring out how to convince people he was right.
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Mary Harris: If you followed the coverage of the Flint water crisis - you probably noticed a guy named Marc Edwards. He did research that showed just how much lead was in Flint’s water -- enough to cause brain damage. When he testified in Congress a few months back, he started out pretty quiet, but by the end, he was almost shouting:
Marc Edwards [recording]: ...And incredibly to this day they have not apologized for what they did in Flint Michigan. No apology from EPA! Completely unrepentant and unable to learn from their mistakes. I guess being a government agency means you never have to say you're sorry.
MH: There is actually a representative from the EPA sitting a couple of chairs down from him during this testimony. Her name is Susan Hedman, she’d just resigned from the agency. When she testified, she had to stop herself from breaking down in tears. Marc Edwards -- he was totally unmoved by that.
ME [recording]: Ms Hedman at every step aided, abetted, and emboldened the unethical behavior of civil servants at the Michigan Dept of Environmental Quality – she allowed Flint’s children to be harmed!
MH: Marc Edwards has been working in Flint for almost a year. He is still sampling the water, still figuring out exactly what’s in those pipes. But, the thing is - he’s not even from Michigan. He lives over 500 miles away, in Blacksburg, Virginia. He’s a professor of Engineering at Virginia Tech. When I listen to him talk - all I want to know is what made him start this crusade? And what makes someone like him tick?
I’m Mary Harris, and this is Only Human. Today on the show, we’re going to talk to Marc Edwards about all this. It took years for him to get the government to take lead in water seriously. But we’re also going to try to figure out what makes anyone into a medical crusader. How does someone like Marc convince the rest of us that he’s got it right? To understand how hard it is to do what Marc Edwards is doing, we got to go back in history a little bit - to another public health crisis. Because a successful crusader needs more than just scientific proof. And back in 1847, one doctor learned that the hard way. So back then --
Constance Putnam: The hospitals were largely looked at as places that you went if you were desperate and you were probably going to die.
MH: This is Constance Putnam. She’s a medical historian.
CP: No clean white coats. One of the prides of surgeons in fact was that the dirtier their jackets -- and by dirt I'm talking about blood and gore spattered on them -- the better because that showed that they were experienced and practiced and had done lots of surgery.
MH: Hospitals were dangerous because they were dirty. And for women, giving birth at a hospital could be deadly.
CP: They would deliver, they would seemingly be doing just fine, and two to three days later they would get raging fever and soon thereafter they would die.
MH: It was called Childbed Fever. And it was a real medical mystery at the time. But there was one doctor who wanted to figure it out. His name was Ignaz Semmelweis -- and he was running one of the two maternity clinics at Vienna General Hospital.
CP: He noticed that the women were dying at a much greater rate in one clinic than in the other and to his considerable distress, they were dying at a greater rate in the clinic that he headed up.
MH: Semmelweis realized that at his clinic, all the deliveries were being done by doctors and medical students. And at the other clinic, babies were being delivered by midwives. But there was something else --
CP: Vienna Hospital at that point was doing extensive autopsy work as a way of learning about disease.
MH: The doctors and med students would go straight from the autopsy room to the delivery room -- without washing their hands.
CP: You come out of the autopsy room and your hands are slimy and sort of stink.
MH: This was Semmelweis’s ah-ha moment. He realized those dirty hands might be connected to the dying mothers. So he instituted a policy. Doctors had to scrub their hands between patients for twenty minutes. With carbolic acid.
CP: Lo and behold, the death rate plummeted, just plummeted.
MH: So Semmelweis was convinced: handwashing would save lives. But this was before we knew anything about germs. He was ahead of his time, and he spent the rest of his life trying in vain to convince his colleagues he was right. Part of his problem was office politics – Semmelweis was so pushy that other doctors, especially the older ones, didn’t want to listen.
CP: It's not inconceivable that if he had been a slightly different kind of person and had been more circumspect in the way he presented his findings to the guys on top, maybe he could have persuaded more people.
MH: Semmelweis tried for nearly two decades -- but he couldn’t get hospitals to implement his handwashing regimen.
CP: He said, I thought the truth would be enough. To him it just was so obvious that there was a connection.
MH: Why didn't he just give up?
CP: Because he really believed it was important. He was confident he was right. He had what he considered ample evidence that, although it wasn't going to save every woman, the death rates would be much, much lower if people would do as he instructed.
MH: Well, I feel like we all have someone like Semmelweis in our life, who is loud and insistent that something is right and we just can't hear them.
CP: Yeah. And they can't seem to deal with the fact that people aren't just getting it. You know, I think one of the things we need to keep our minds open to is what, what is being promoted today that we're not paying enough attention to, we're not taking as seriously as we should.
MH: Crusaders can be hard to listen to. But just a few years after Semmelweis died, his theory was finally proven right - by Louis Pasteur and others who started to understand germs. Genius idea, bad timing. So what about the crusaders who do win their fights? The danger with them is what if their big idea is wrong...
[clip] A crowd of more than 5,000 jammed Washington Airport to roar their welcome to President and Mrs. Eisenhower, as they returned from a seven week hospital stay in Denver.
MH: This story starts with a national crisis. It was 1955. President Eisenhower had just had a heart attack. It kept him out of the White House for weeks.
President Eisenhower [clip]: “I am happy the doctors have given me at least a parole, if not a pardon, and I expect to be back at my accustomed duties, although they say I must ease my way into them, and not bulldoze my way into them. [laughs]
MH: What happened to Eisenhower was happening to a lot of Americans. Suddenly, more and more people were having heart attacks. A lot of them were dying. And scientists were scrambling to figure out why. Enter our crusader. His name was Ancel Keys.
Nina Teicholz: He came up with the idea that it was saturated fats that cause heart disease that's the kind of fat in butter, meat, cheese, dairy, eggs.
MH: This is journalist Nina Teicholz. She’s the author of a book called “The Big Fat Surprise.” And she writes about Keys’s idea, which seems like common sense today but it was revolutionary at the time. Basically, he thought that if you eat more saturated fat, not only do you get fat, but you have more fat in your blood. That blocks your arteries, and leads to heart attacks. Here’s how he tried to prove it: he did this study of people in different countries. Some people -- like those in Japan -- ate very little saturated fat and had very few heart attacks. Others had a higher-fat diet -- and lots of heart attacks. That’s what seemed to be happening in the United States. But Nina says Ancel Keys just cherry-picked the countries.
NT: There were countries where people ate a lot of saturated fat like Switzerland, France, Germany -- sausages, omelettes you know cream sauce -- where they ate a lot of those foods but had very low rates of heart attack. But he ignored those countries. He was so convinced in his own belief. And he didn’t want to hear any data to the contrary.
MH: President Eisenhower was convinced, too. He went on a low-fat diet after that first heart attack. And the rest of America followed suit. Because Ancel Keys knew how to sell his idea.
NT: It's sort of an example of like the Great Man theory of history. You know there are various theories about why history takes the course that it does, but he was truly a powerful, great man, even though he had the wrong idea.
MH: And he knew how to make friends in high places.
NT: He was an incredibly forceful individual and he was able to position himself on in the American Heart Association nutrition advisory board, and he twisted them around to his idea -- so literally from 1960 the American Heart Association is saying we don't really know what causes heart disease to 1961 Ancel Keys is now on and he and his pal Jeremiah Stanler convince the council to say that saturated fats is probably the cause of heart disease.
MH: In one year.
NT: In one year! Based on zero hard evidence. That initial recommendation by the American Heart Association in 1961 was like the acorn that grew into the giant oak tree of advice we have today.
MH: If you’ve been to a grocery store, you know how influential Ancel Keys’s has been. I still buy low fat chips, just because it feels right. But decades after a low fat diet became popular, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. Nina says that means fat may not be the problem. Now, doctors have new theories. Like this one researcher Nina spoke with...
NT: I mean he's read more of the literature than any single other person I know and he said you know, "I think it's just stress but I really think we just don’t know."
MH: Even though she totally disagrees with Ancel Keys, Nina says he did prove one thing: how powerful a crusader can be - if he’s prepared to fight for his ideas. After the break, we’ll go back to Flint, Michigan -- to Marc Edwards. He spent the first half of his career like Ignaz Semmelweis, trying to convince other people he was right. It took him more than a decade to learn how to sell his science as well as Ancel Keys did.
MH: I’m Mary Harris. This is Only Human. Today, we’re talking about medical crusaders -- people who dedicate their lives to a cause. That dedication often comes with a price. Marc Edwards knows that first hand. I asked him to come on and talk about how he became such a strong voice in Flint, Michigan. It turns out, his crusade started more than a decade ago, in Washington DC, and back then he wasn’t successful at all. That changed him.
ME: You can crawl away and you can hide or you can fight. And I’m a fighter.
MH: It all started when the DC water authority noticed tiny, pinhole leaks in residents’ pipes, and they hired Marc to look into it. The EPA thought lead might be part of the problem, so they hired Marc, too, and asked him to do some sampling..
ME: I was out sampling in a consumer’s home and I discovered very, very high levels of lead higher levels than anyone had told me could possibly be present.
MH: How high are we talking?
ME: They were probably hazardous waste levels of lead. I had a field meter and I collected the sample and it was off the charts and in fact I thought my field meter was broken.
MH: So you saw this result and you literally thought like oh this must be an error?
ME: Yes, I did
MH: Marc did several more tests -- and realized that first result wasn't a mistake. He figured out that a treatment chemical was damaging the pipes, causing lead to seep into drinking water. When he explained his findings to the EPA and the water authority, they insisted DC residents were safe, as long as they ran their taps for thirty seconds before taking a drink. But Marc’s research showed that this was actually bad advice -- it increased lead exposure.
ME: Literally the information we were giving out was poisoning kids. It was the worst advice you could possibly give.
MH: So he pushed back. He told anyone who would listen that the water was dangerous: not just the EPA and the Water and Sewer Authority. But also homeowners. That’s when he realized that speaking up would cost him. First, he heard from the water authority.
ME: I got a call that said look we've got this contract with your name on it for 150,000 dollars, and if you keep working with us and play by our rules you can have the money.
MH: Marc declined their offer. And then the EPA cut him off.
ME: They just said, Well I'm sorry, that contract is over."
MH: He was counting on these contracts to pay for work he was already doing, figuring out the exact source of the lead -- and whether it could be removed. Once he knew residents were at risk, he felt this moral obligation to keep going. So he took out loans: and he kept sampling the water and examining the pipes. And he also combed through government emails -- and checked and double checked official research.
MH: I'm just imagining you going home to your wife and saying, "Honey, I just need to get out a couple more loans to keep doing this work." You're a young guy. I mean that must have been a hard conversation.
ME: I was stressed and I wasn't taking care of myself and I actually one point lost thirty pounds and I thought I was having a heart attack and I went to the hospital and I remember telling my wife, I said-- "You know this is it." I told her goodbye because I really thought I was dying.
MH: Oh my gosh.
ME: This is, as you can imagine it's very, very stressful because you're --- not only is it just the betrayal by the environmental policemen and the lost money. It's just your whole understanding of how the world works is shattered. And so that was the beginning of my journey that you know took seven years to uncover the depths of the betrayal that occurred in Washington DC to prove that thousands of children had their blood lead elevated when the C.D.C.claimed there was none.
MH: Did you think if I just tell the truth, it'll be fine.
ME: Yes. I just thought people would care about facts and about the truth and that they would be reasonable because that's what science and engineering is about. They were willfully blind and actively writing falsified documents to cover up what they did.
MH: Marc Edwards says what happened in DC was a total system failure. It wasn’t just the EPA and the water authority. It was the Centers for Disease Control, too. It sounds crazy -- but it’s all true. Congress investigated. And they found that the CDC knowingly used inaccurate data to claim that DC’s water was safe to drink. Together, these agencies put thousands of people at risk.
MH: I imagine at a certain point it just might feel like maybe I'm crazy here. If so many people are saying this thing over maybe you must question yourself, too.
ME: Oh every day. I mean here you are, you're giving up your career, your professional life is being eviscerated. They were -- they were spying on me. I actually had a post-doc, who one of the people at the agency was dating, who I believe was taking documents from my office.
MH: When we asked him to back up this story, he sent us this voicemail.
[clip] Message one was received at 5:50 pm Thursday.
MH: It’s an anonymous message from more than a decade ago. At the time, Marc Edwards had become an expert witness in a lawsuit against the DC water authority.
[clip] Hi Dr. Edwards I am a graduate student -- or, entering as a graduate student. One of your postdoc students I believe is passing along information on your research to the District of Columbia water quality manager that you are actually involved in a lawsuit and testifying against I believe...
MH: Marc has no idea who left this message. What she’s alleging sounds like the plot of a movie: an employee spying on the boss, covertly copying documents and sending them along to the very people he is accusing of wrongdoing. These are tough allegations to prove. Edwards did uncover emails showing one of his postdoc students was dating an employee of the water authority. And eventually he fired her. But the whole incident left him wondering who he could trust.
MH: I just imagine it would make you completely paranoid.
ME: I mean you do question your sanity. You do question why am I destroying my career. And the reality is everyone is just so hung up on advancing their own career, their own agenda that it's unreasonable to think that anyone else is ever going to help, that anyone else is ever going to defend you, that's just the nature of a whistle blower's journey.
MH: In 2013, Marc published his final report on the DC water crisis, eleven years after this all began. He was just settling back into his life at Virginia Tech, when he got a call from a woman named Lee-Ann Walters. She’s a mom in Flint, Michigan.
ME: Lee-Ann had figured out that one of her twins was not growing as fast as the other and through that living experiment, she figured out that one of the children was lead poisoned.
MH: Marc had Lee-Ann send him a sample of her water, and he ran a bunch of tests.
ME: And when we got the results, I remember it was about midnight and my heart just skipped a couple of beats because it was the worst lead in water I'd ever seen.
MH: How did your experience in DC change what you did in Flint next?
ME: I had been refighting the DC battle in my head been for about seven years. You ask yourself what if what if I had not been so naive. And I just the last thing on earth I needed at this point was another confrontation with powerful government agencies but--
MH: Yeah, so why’d you do it?
ME: How could I not do it? Kids were getting hammered with high lead. How can I sit by and let that harm occur. It's not an option -- you find a way.
MH: So Marc got a team of graduate students together, packed up his wife’s minivan, and drove from his home in Blacksburg, Virginia to Flint. He went door-to-door, running tests on Flint’s water.
ME: We started doing experiments and collaborated with local elementary schools to show just how simple this was. So when the state said oh they don't know what they're talking about we said look here's our experimental result and oh by the way this is so simple a fourth grade classroom can do this. A fourth grade classroom was on T.V. showing their results.
MH: In Flint, Marc’s work had an immediate impact. He learned from his first crusade -- and he got results.
ME: What took eight years in DC, it took us eight weeks with the help of outside actors in Flint. The harm done in Washington DC was thirty times worse than what occurred in Flint but in Flint we actually got kids protected before the worst damage occurred.
MH: Marc’s crusade in Flint is still going. After years of fighting the government, he’s working for them again. The Governor of Michigan appointed him to an advisory council for the city’s water. Marc recently told people in Flint they can use the tap to wash their hands and take showers -- but the water’s not safe for drinking. Not yet.
MH: What do you think made you into the person who brought these issues to light?
ME: Well I'm very idealistic. I'm very stubborn and I'm probably the most optimistic person on the planet. I mean people say to me oh you sound so cynical you say all these bad things and I'm like look what we have at these agencies right now -- that's not good enough. OK. I can't live in a world where E.P.A. and the C.D.C. poison little kids. I will not live in that world and I'm optimistic enough to think that I'm going to change it.
MH: It’s clear talking to you that you are incredibly passionate about what you do but there's also this cost to it.
ME: You know but here's the thing. I got up every day with such a sense of purpose and I felt like I was doing the job I was born to do. And how many people get to experience that in their life? I just wish everyone could experience something like that once in their life like what we did with Flint residents. That’s priceless. You know I wouldn't wish what happened to me on anyone but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world either.
MH: Someone sent Marc Edwards a picture of this mural that used to stand at the corner of Saginaw Street and MLK in Flint. It had a quote from Albert Einstein on it: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Marc Edwards really believes these words. But crusades like his -- don’t really end. Doctors know they’re supposed to wash their hands, just like Ignaz Semmelweis said. But patients are still dying of infections that hand washing could prevent. Ancel Keys -- he started a debate about healthy eating that’s still going on today. And Marc Edwards is waiting for the next lead-in-water crisis. He says he knows it’s coming, and the best thing he can do, is be ready to fight.
Before we go - One more thing - all this month, we’ve been asking you to show us a little love by making a donation to the show to keep us going strong. For those who have already donated -- thanks. If you haven’t had a chance yet - there’s still time! Just go to OnlyHuman.org/donate or text “Human” to the number 698-66. Your donation really does make a difference.”
This episode was produced by Jillian Weinberger. Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, Elaine Chen, Paige Cowett, Julia Longoria, Kenny Malone, Fred Mogul, Ankita Rao, and Lisa Rapaport. Our technical director is Cayce Means. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Thanks to Danielle Fox and Stephanie Daniel.
Jim Schachter is the Vice President of news for WNYC.
I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you next week.