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Flint Lead Crisis Expert Says Filters for Faucets Good Interim Fix for Milwaukee

Susan Bence
Marc Edwards spoke at the Marquette University Law School Public Policy and American drinking Water conference this week.

The whole world seems to know about the Milwaukee mayor's statement this week.

Tom Barrett advised residents living in homes built before 1951 to install water filters to protect themselves from possible lead poisoning.

Barrett made the comment just after he took part in a panel discussion at Marquette University Law School. The topic was “Lead, Drinking Water, and Aging Infrastructure."

Marc Edwards also sat on the panel. He's the Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who, along with his students, brought Flint Michigan’s water crisis to the world’s attention.

Years earlier he led an investigation into a lead-related public health disaster in Washington D.C. which resulted in a Congressional investigation.

Edwards said he came out of the Milwaukee panel thinking the city was getting its act together.

“Especially given its history where they were kind of a world leader hiding lead and water problems and not acknowledging them as a health threat," Edwards adds. "At least since early this year, they’ve been a world leader in being honest about this problem. Acknowledging the dangers of partial pipe replacements and further acknowledging that as long as lead pipes are there, the water is not safe for vulnerable populations."

Edwards did some water sampling in Milwaukee earlier this year. He says it probably meets federal standards, but even those aren't up to par.

“The EPA’s Lead and Copper 25 years old, it’s full of loopholes, it’s not sufficiently protective and the idea that we were going to coat these pipes with orthophosphate and make the water safe to drink, it looks a little naïve in retrospect. And anybody who has looked at this problem now feels this way,” Edwards says.

He believes Mayor Barrett’s filter recommendation was spot on.

“As long you have lead pipes, the water cannot be considered safe to drink, especially if you have vulnerable populations, children six and under or using tap water to make infant formula. You shouldn’t do that if you have a lead pipe. You should use bottled water for cooking or drinking, or using water that passes through an NSF certified lead filter,” Edwards says.

He believes filters are an underutilized tool interim solution, while cities like Milwaukee come up with permanent infrastructure fixes.

“Even in Flint, where we had tens of thousands of parts per billion lead coming out of those taps," he says. "EPA took hundreds of samples from those worst-case homes and never found a case homes, and never found a case where more than 2 or 3 parts per billion was going through the filter."

Edwards adds, “the filters have worked in our lab, they’ve worked in the field. $30 isn’t really out of the reach of many families or cities.”

At the end of the day, you do have to look at yourself in the mirror and even if it does suck to be you, at least I did not stand by and let government agencies poison little children and destroy a city in Flint, Michigan.

Edwards is part of a team that continues to monitor Flint, Michigan’s recovery. He describes it as a long, three-phase process.

The city’s water must meet existing federal credits.

“I think in a few months we’ll be able to claim that,” Edwards says. “That's really nothing to brag about. To meet the existing Lead and Copper Rule is not a high hurdle to cross over.”

He says fixing Flint’s damaged infrastructure presents a huge problem.

“The reality is that this system will cost several hundred million dollars to fix and Flint residents cannot afford to do it, it’s a simple fact,” Edwards says.

Edwards believes coming up with a solution is important to the nation as a whole.

“Because if we do not do that, people will continue to leave and it hastens what I call a death spiral. Once your infrastructure reaches a certain point of disrepair, the people who are left, cannot afford to get it fixed,” he says.

Edwards says the phenomenon is happening around the country.

“It’s happening in Detroit, it’s happening in post-industrial cities, in rural America where you’ve lost 50 or 60 percent of your population in some towns. These people are being left behind,” he adds. “Are we as Americans going to stand by and let civilization as we know it end for these people, or are we going to step up and do something about it?”

Flint’s third challenge, in Edwards' opinion, will prove most difficult to solve.

“The traumatic and profound loss of trust in anybody and anything because the people of Flint were betrayed," he explains. "They were lied to for 18 plus months, people died. The agencies knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak and they did not tell anyone.”

He admits to an even more profound concern.

“One of the greater dangers to mankind is trust in scientists. The fate of mankind rests as never before on scientists and engineers finding solutions to our problems. What is to become of us if we are untrustworthy. The public is turning away from us, in many cases for good reason,” Edwards explains.

“We are too much looking out for ourselves, trying to get funding, skewing results in favor of a funding agency, whether it’s a federal agency or other entity.”

Edwards believes the scientific community itself, including himself, must stem the tide.

“We have problems; we have to get them fixed and I really do think that the future of humankind rests on us getting our own house in order,” Edwards says.

Edwards understands people who hear his message might think he's forecasting doom and gloom.

"But I feel I'm one of the most optimistic people on the planet, because I'm simply saying, what we've got right now is not good enough.  It's not good enough at EPA, at our agencies, it's not good enough at academia and unless we get this culture changed, we're all going to pay a terrible price," Edwards concludes, "I believe in my heart, we are going to get a change."

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.