Wednesday, March 2

Hero

Some readers often express surprise that my mystery novels, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, tackle the challenges of Afghanistan and the Middle East from the perspective of families living in a small and isolated village.

"The most powerful force in the universe is a mother protecting [her] children,"contends Marc Edwards, the environmental engineer from Virginia Tech University who identified systematic contamination of the Flint water supply and helped residents raise the alarm. He shows a photo of a mother bear fiercely protecting her cubs. "And even if you don't care about children's health, and I think you should and you should get out of the field, and if  you don't, you don't want to mess with this force because she will go out of her way to track you down and mess you up."

Edwards spoke at a public forum presented by WKAR on his role in the Flint water crisis. To save funds, the city under state emergency management shifted its water supply away from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. By summer, residents were complaining. Six months later, in October, a General Motors plant discontinued using the city's water. By January 2015, state office buildings in Flint arranged for special water deliveries for their use.

Meanwhile, state officials kept assuring residents the water was safe. 

Lee Anne Walters is a Flint mother who noticed her children had rashes during summer of 2014 after they took paths or left the family's pool. That started a series of trips to the doctor and a pattern of worry. City tests found lead, but officials suggested the problem was with the home's plumbing. In February 2015, Walters contacted Miguel Del Toral of the US Environmental Protection Agency Midwest Water Division and Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Technical University. Blood tests showed her four children were exposed to lead. Edwards tested the water  and found lead levels - more than 13,000 parts per billion and more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. The city had switched water supplies and in failing to treat the water with an inexpensive anti-corrosion agent had virtually ruining the pipes, Del Toral informs the state, and expresses concern that the entire city could have the same problem.

Lead is a toxic metal, especially dangerous for children, that can cause many health problems - neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and renal, reports the World Health Organization.  No level of exposure is deemed safe.


The mother, the EPA staffer and the professor assumed that state environmental officials would do their jobs and take immediate action. A city of almost 100,000 people was slowly being poisoned with lead and other contaminants. The complaints were many, yet state and local government officials resisted raising an alarm.

State environmental officials scoffed at residents who complained about brown water and repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink. EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman reprimanded Del Toral in July 2015. In August, Edwards spent his own money to conduct wide-scale and independent tests of Flint water with the help of students. By September, he announced that the corrosion problem is community-wide with his tests showing that one out of six homes in Flint showed high levels of lead. In September pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha announced a spike in Flint children with elevated blood lead levels. Another month goes by, and in October, the city advised Flint residents to use only cold tapwater for drinking or cooking. State officials accuse Edwards and others of turning the issue into a "political football."

By mid-October 2015, Flint returned to the Lake Huron for its water supply. But pipes were ruined. The governor declared a state of emergency for the county in January 2016. More than 18 months had passed before the the public received a complete warning, and Edwards suggests that action would have taken much longer had the story not hit the newspapers. The contamination may have been caught relatively early because state officials were so callous and didn't even try to fake caring for Michigan residents.

Such unethical behavior is tolerated in the United States every day, Edwards warns, and he describes Walters, the Flint mom, as "ten times the scientist" over anyone at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Edwards is firm about the scientist's role: "Science is about seeking the truth and helping people, and if you're doing it for any other reason, you should look find another career." He urges students, "Do your job, be a human. Revolutionary."

Public goods like water, essential for survival, are taken for granted. "In the US, Clean Water Is No Guarantee," and as I noted in 2011, "During an economic recession, protecting water supplies takes a back seat to industries that promise jobs....Americans may soon regret favoring one commodity [oil] over the other [water]."

Thanks to the tireless work of Walters, Edwards and Del Toral - the EPA has since done a turnaround and issued a memo urging managers of public water supplies to implement the Lead and Copper Rule, adding agents to prevent corrosion of pipes, and inform communities about problems in a timely way. Even so, the country can expect other problems and contamination of water supplies. A culture of corruption has infiltrated American society, and no one is safe until such systems are fixed and ordinary people find the courage to do their jobs and speak out about problems, rather than looking the other way and waiting for someone else to take on the unpleasant task.

Too many political, academic and business leaders try to evade basic truths while protecting their own careers. An investigation is underway.

Update, March 4: The Guardian newspaper examines emails in Michigan and suggests all staff in the governor's inner circle knew of complaints about corrosion and contamination. Some staff members chose to ignore the complaints and other questioned the veracity. The complaints bounced back and forth among staff members with no action or urgency.

A good reminder for any employee. If there is a suspicion of wrongdoing or danger, especially for vulnerable people, do not limit reports of concern to one supervisor. The employee may get fired or reprimanded, like Del Toral, but that is better than later being regarded as callous, incompetent or criminally liable.

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