From DC to Flint: Betraying the Public by Sidelining Science

February 22, 2016 | 3:50 pm
Derrick Z. Jackson

An interview with Marc Edwards leaves you both with admiration for his dogged pursuit of science for the people and despair for how science is so easily ignored, manipulated and ridiculed, even when it involves irreversible brain damage to children. Edwards warned that if the nation does not restore science to its proper place in society and politics, the field’s reputation will be as tainted as the very lead water Edwards and his team at Virginia Tech exposed in Flint, Michigan.


Marc Edwards. Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“That’s what’s so troubling about this,” Edwards told me over the telephone from Blacksburg. “The level of scientific misconduct threatens all of us who are trying to do what’s right. We’re breaking society’s bond with science. If we don’t get it together, society is not going to support us financially or spiritually.”

Edwards is troubled well beyond the particulars of Flint, from the city’s failure to use inexpensive anti-corrosive agents to the state squashing of data and federal fecklessness in challenging the state. He is outraged that nothing seems to have been learned from his crusade against government officials in the Washington, D.C. lead crisis of 2004.

At massive cost to his family finances, friendships and great risk to his professional reputation, Edwards confirmed high levels of lead in DC drinking water, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention either insisted it was safe or failed to properly inform the public when it knew the water was not safe, through its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC’s now-infamous claim in 2004 that it found “no indication” of “blood lead levels above the CDC’s level of concern” in turn was used by several municipalities around the nation to allay fears of lead in their water, including Seattle’s school system.

“It was Orwellian,” Edwards said.

Six years later, a 2010 House oversight committee report found that CDC officials “cloaked the MMWR’s fundamental data integrity failings” and “undermined public health efforts” by refusing to acknowledge that anything “could potentially be amiss.” But instead of using that study to shore up its bureaucracy and credibility, Edwards said it is clear that federal and state agencies and often underfunded municipalities remain more invested in denying a crisis than facing it head-on.

The investment in denial seems unaffected by which party is in the White House. The DC crisis happened during the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Flint occurred during the Democratic and more environmentally conscious Obama administration. In fairness, it should be said that while Bush himself proposed massive cuts to the EPA, the CDC, Superfund cleanups and lead poisoning prevention programs, Obama’s efforts to expand science to combat pollution and public health were often curtailed or stymied by a Republican-led Congress. In a fiscal 2012 cut that hits close to home for anyone concerned with Flint, Congress slashed home lead protection funds from $29.3 million to $2 million. Funding was increased two years later, but only back to half its prior level.

Such cuts effectively leave a perilous trail of health and safety laws, mandates with staffs and budgets too skimpy to police them. The result too often is disillusionment.

“Every time you think they can’t get away with this, they do,” Edwards said. “What we have are unaccountable agencies that have people deep within them who have revealed their true incompetence. I mean, you can’t get more black and white than lead in water. There is no safe level of lead in water. Yet whistleblowers get fired, incompetent people keep their jobs and leaders become cowards. There is more loyalty to each other within these institutions than to the human race.”

Perhaps that explains a lot more than Flint and DC. In the 2014 book Science for Sale, on government control of science and the silencing of scientists, Edwards wrote in the foreword that whistleblowers and heroic scientists “are always destined for singular journeys, because even our most supportive colleagues have little choice but to be bystanders and there is no higher authority in science that can serve as an impartial judge and jury.“

Flint ought to be the beginning of assuring there are higher authorities people can trust. President Obama has said he would be an angry parent if he lived in Flint, freed up tens of millions of dollars in emergency funds, and is pushing for more money nationally to modernize drinking water lines.

But what is also clearly needed is a body on the level of the Sentencing Commission on unequal justice, the 9-11 Commission on terrorism, or the Kerner Commission on racial divides. The nation must know why federal, state, and local health and environmental agencies too often are on the wrong side or the sideline of public health. There should be a full rendering of how government repeatedly fails to protect the public on the most basic need of drinking water and how the very agencies entrusted with that protection corrode into a cowardly culture that punishes scientists who speak up for the people.

The White House and Congress should follow up with a bipartisan attack on such a culture. That seems an impossible order for a divided Congress, but it is what has to be done.

It has to be done because there are clearly many more Flints and DCs that have happened and are waiting to happen. This week the New York Times reported that there are millions of lead pipes still in service around the nation, with scores of unregulated chemicals that have yet to be studied for their impact on human health. That story mentioned how Jackson, Mississippi, waited six months to announce lead contamination in its drinking water.

Such delays have to be at least partially due to an atmosphere in which localities fear no higher authority for what to most people is out of sight and out of mind—until one’s hair falls out. An EPA advisory group has made recommendations to strengthen lead rules, but one of Edwards’ colleagues at Virginia Tech who served on the group said the recommendations are already too weak.

“You think our roads and bridges aren’t being fixed? The stuff underground is just totally ignored,” Erik Olson, toxic chemical expert for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Times.

Edwards leaves you with the conviction that we can no longer ignore either the infrastructure underground, or the structure of decision in federal and state health and environmental agencies that is just as corrosive as the water from the Flint River.

“Something is rotten with our engineering and science agencies that are paid to protect us,” Edwards said. “For me, this shakes me to my core. One Flint, one DC, people won’t forget them as a fundamental betrayal. The thing that scares me the most is that it took a miracle to expose them.”

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.