We helped uncover a public health crisis in Flint, but learned there are costs to doing good science


William Rhoads, Virginia Tech; Rebekah Martin, Virginia Tech, and Siddhartha Roy, Virginia Tech

Our team of more than two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tech has spent much of the past year analyzing and publicizing unsafe drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

Our “open science” research collaboration with Flint residents revealed high levels of lead, Legionella and damage to potable water infrastructure due to a failure to implement corrosion control treatment.

Despite Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) messages that the water was safe, we fought to educate residents about severe public health risks. That work led to a declaration of a public health emergency, first by the city of Flint and later by the state of Michigan and President Barack Obama; garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for Flint residents; and informed a national debate on “safe” drinking water in America.

Our work, by any measure, succeeded. But at the same time, this experience has forced us to confront broader questions.

We have learned that as well-trained scientists and engineers, we can be agents for positive change. However, we have also learned that many obstacles make it hard to do good science – not only in crisis situations, but every day.

Why we had to get involved

By now the details of Flint’s water crisis are well-known.

In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager decided to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit, and instead to treat and distribute Flint River water to city residents.

The MDEQ, which was responsible for ensuring that Flint’s water met federal standards, violated federal regulation when it did not require the city of Flint to properly treat the water – which we now know is highly corrosive – to minimize —> Read More

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