Marc Edwards has been named among the most influential people in the world by Time, Fortune, Politico, and Foreign Policy Magazine. Edwards is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, and he blew the whistle on the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
His fight for clean water started long before Flint became national news. Edwards spent 13 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money fighting city officials and state representatives to reveal water-safety cover ups in both Flint, Michigan and Washington, D.C. Guest host Phoebe Judge speaks with Edwards about how he first entered the fight against the high-lead level cover ups in these cities, and about the personal consequences of being a whistleblower.
On receiving initial calls of concern over water quality from residents in Washington, D.C.:
Their questions were mainly about the plumbing being eaten up by the water and actually forming holes that would create leaks in their house. But about that time I also was hired by the U.S. E.P.A. to work on what they said was a lead problem, and that’s what I do. And little did I know that this was the most catastrophic lead contamination event in modern U.S. history and that the E.P.A. had known about it for several years. And we were soon to be on a collision course that would lead me to no longer be working with the E.P.A.
On discovering the high lead levels in Washington, D.C. homes:
I had measured lead in some of the homes. And the levels were so high that they were off the charts for my field device. And they literally classified it as hazardous waste in a few cases. There were homes that were over a hundred parts per billion. Literally about 10,000 Washington D.C. homes at levels so high that [they were] equal to the dose of lead in a turn-of-the-century lead abortion pill that women used to take to control family size.
On getting a call from a mother in Flint, Michigan who was concerned about her water:
We were preparing for the day when another Washington, D.C. was going to occur, and when I got this call from a Flint resident in 2015, what I realized was, this was it. This mom had a living experiment in front of her in the form of twin boys. And the growth of one was mentally and physically stunted. And of course she was asking why … Miss LeeAnne Walters, she figured out that that child had elevated lead in his blood. She figured out the source was lead in water, and she further figured out the city and state had lied about following federal corrosion control law to the E.P.A.
On the consequences of being a whistleblower:
It is simply the fact that science—we’re very much conformists … We have all this academic freedom in the form of tenure, but we’re also the greatest generation of cowards in U.S. history because we’re also the last people to exercise that freedom. And why? Because if you speak out against a funding agency, you are committing professional suicide. You will lose your funding. You will lose your friends. That has happened to me. I probably lost 80 percent of the friends I had when I started on this journey.