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SPOTLIGHT

Flint Water Crisis Yields Hard Lessons in Science and Ethics

Katie L. Burke

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Like many scientists, Virginia Tech civil engineer Marc Edwards chose his career to serve the public good. But his experience uncovering the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, where citizens were exposed to high levels of lead because of government and scientific negligence, has been a stark reminder of what can happen when science is misused or ignored. To make matters worse, the Flint water crisis is a repeat of very recent history. About a decade ago, Edwards revealed high lead levels in public water in Washington, DC, exposing misconduct at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA). At the time, in 2003, Edwards was conducting WASA-funded research investigating an unprecedented number of small leaks in copper water pipes in the DC area as well as EPA-subcontracted research on water lead levels. He found some lead concentrations in the thousands of parts per billion and realized that WASA had given out misinformed advice about drinking water. But after he notified the agency, WASA refused to issue a new memo to alert people. Soon after, WASA threatened to withhold the results from his sampling program as well as $110,000 of funding he had recently proposed, unless he stopped the studies of water in local homes. Edwards refused, and the EPA terminated his subcontract. Edwards continued his research, paying his team out of his own pocket when he had to. In March 2004, the CDC published a report that concluded that the lead levels from blood tests of DC children were not high enough for concern. After congressional hearings, the EPA ruled later in 2004 that WASA violated federal regulation. In 2009 congressional hearings, the CDC report was found to be flawed, because it left out samples, a fact that had come to light after Edwards reanalyzed the full data set. Digital features editor Katie L. Burke interviewed Edwards about his experiences and how he is working to prevent another incident like the ones in Flint and DC.

Studies by you and others have now shown that tens of thousands of homes in Washington, DC, had elevated levels of lead in their water. Lead levels in some water samples you tested were so high that they could be classified as hazardous waste. How could scientists and regulatory agencies let that happen?

The DC water crisis was the most fundamental betrayal of the public trust and scientific integrity in black and white that I have ever seen or even heard of, having reviewed case study after case study. With no profit motive whatsoever, these people [those in leadership positions at WASA, EPA, and CDC] poisoned an entire city, covered it up completely, and made sure that these kids and their families never even got a penny to help with the extra educational needs that they have [as a result of the poisoning]. It took me working as a volunteer crazy person for six years to prove that kids were hurt.

Five people [Seema Bhat, Jim Bobreski, Sue Kanen, Jerome Krough, and Ralph Scott] put their professional lives on the line in DC. They were fired. Two won whistleblower lawsuits, but no one really ever thanked these people. The perpetrators and the federal government who caused the DC lead crisis covered it up every step of the way.

If it comes down to a decision between their reputation and the truth, the truth will lose every single time with these agencies, because they are not rewarded for being loyal to the human race. They’re rewarded for being loyal to their agency. That’s the kind of people we have, unfortunately, in positions of power.

How can the agencies prevent another DC or Flint water crisis?

If you ever want to know why something like Flint happens, you only have to look at how we destroy good people and promote weak, unethical cowards. At that point, it’s just what you expect. We should expect more Flints in the future unless we get the system fixed.

What have you found to be the most effective way to reach people when you talk about failing public infrastructure that is underfunded?

If you look at every projection of the federal budget, due to mismanagement and entitlement, discretionary spending is going down. That’s happening at the federal, state, and local level. We are in an era where the pie is getting smaller. That is going to create unprecedented pressure on all aspects of science and engineering. It’s going to pressure us to be unethical in some situations to make sure we get our positions taken care of. We have to prioritize like we never have before.

What do we value as a society? From my perspective, critical infrastructure, you have to advocate for that, because without it, civilization is lost. That’s what happened in Flint. They lost their ability to get clean water. People left town. This happened in Rome roughly two millennia ago. When the aqueducts no longer functioned, Rome lost 95 percent of its population. A civilization can literally end if you don’t invest in these priorities.

I think we also have to be aware that this is a prioritization process. We have to engage in these debates and fully realize that there are other priorities for the shrinking pie. Education is getting the short end of the stick as well. You have to have some humility about that, look at the economic realities, and try to do more with less. It’s the ultimate science and engineering challenge to still serve mankind, even though the fiscal reality is that we’re not going to get increased funding and in all likelihood we’re going to get less.

You now have a reputation as a whistleblower. Have you always had a skeptical attitude toward the research establishment?

Before my experiences in DC, I was incredibly naive. I was about 40 years old, and I didn’t know anything about the history of scientific misconduct. I hadn’t even accepted the idea that scientists at federal agencies with no profit motive whatsoever would behave unethically. I think a lot of America is just waking up to that possibility based on what we exposed in Flint.

It was very difficult for me to accept, because I was to some extent willfully blind, in retrospect. I was a danger to myself and others, because I didn’t really understand the dark side of science, which is the dark side of humans. We’re all imperfect, and humans can screw up anything. Growing up worshipping at the altar of science, if you will, and thinking of science just as a good, and thinking that if I’m a scientist or engineer then I’m by definition doing good. The idea that science might be used for bad in a Western democracy hadn’t really entered into my mind-set.

What went through your head as you began to realize that government scientists were lying?

It was an extremely traumatic experience for me to learn this the hard way, to see that corrupt officials couldn’t care less about facts and scientific truths if it meant protecting their reputation or advancing their agency’s agenda. At one point I’d lost about 30 pounds when I realized what the EPA was up to. My heart started racing, and I told my wife, “I’m going to die.” I told her goodbye. Thankfully, I didn’t die. I’m sure some people out there wish I had.

Do you think you would have been better off in your early career if you’d been more aware of the likelihood of encountering scientific misconduct?

You can really mess yourself up, I think, just from being that naive and uninformed. It’s a real problem that we as scientists aren’t aware of our history. We’re not taught about how everything human about us can push us to do unethical things. We face those pressures day in and day out, and it’s only by properly using the scientific method and honoring it that we can stop ourselves from reaching the wrong conclusions that hurt people. Science really is this amazing tool that if it’s done properly you will more often than not reach the correct conclusion, which is important, I hope we would all agree. But to the extent that you let down your guard and lack moral humility, you will wake up some day having done something horrible, even though you started down this path with the best of intentions.

Why and how do these scientists end up hurting rather than helping the public with their flawed research?

I believe that the vast majority of scientists entering the profession from high school, based on my personal observation, view science as a public good and a force to create a better world. Gradually, if you look at our educational institutions and the workplace, what happens is we are taught to become willfully blind. We’re taught to become cynical. We’re taught that we can’t do better than the status quo, and that if this agency’s corrupt, there’s nothing we can do about that. We feel powerless. We become part of the problem.

This all happens naturally, to the point that a lot of people end up becoming something that they once abhorred. They become people who practice science and engineering and end up harming people.

You now co-teach with anthropologist Yanna Lambrinidou an ethics class at Virginia Tech called Engineering Ethics and the Public. How do you approach mentoring future scientists in this class to help them avoid these pitfalls?

We have to tell people that heroism is difficult. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn’t be heroism. It’s our experience and our hypothesis in the class, Dr. Lambrinidou’s and mine, that ethics instruction in this country is 100 percent wrong in how it’s approached. It is presented as if “you know the rules, and we’re going to teach you them. Then, if you follow them, everything will turn out just fine.” It’s like a chess game, and if you know the rules, you’ll win. That’s not the real world. Real-world ethical dilemmas are gut-wrenching, life-changing experiences that require you to put yourself in harm’s way to do the right thing. What class in ethics is teaching students that fact? We try to instill ethical street-smarts in students.

What we do in the class is make sure people understand who they are, what they stand for, where they will draw the line, and to write that down at this early point in their career. We put them in real-world situations where everything is pushing them to do the wrong thing. They see how strong a person you have to be to uphold scientific integrity. They come away realizing, “Wow, this is not easy to remain ethical in a perverse incentive structure.” We go through case studies that show how heroic actors do the right thing, put their career on the line to protect the public, and are fired.

One of our best examples is what we call the press conference. We have each student role-play that they’re one of the agencies that was involved in perpetrating and covering up the Washington, DC, lead crisis. We give them briefing materials that tell each agency what they know at that moment in time and how their agency owns a little piece of this problem because of their past mistakes. We then let them know the public is angry. In a few days they’re going to give a press conference and answer questions.

When we do that, nine times out of ten the students find themselves lying. It’s fascinating. We then play the videotape from the actual people at the press conferences telling the exact same lies. They very quickly learn that telling the truth is not necessarily your first inclination. Throughout the semester they get to see how a half lie turns into a bigger lie, which turns into a bigger lie, until eventually you create the epic examples of scientific misconduct.

The Washington, DC, lead crisis goes on to this day. Kids that were hurt might get their day in court next summer, at which point they’re out of high school.

Once you’ve lived through those kinds of experiences, you realize that you have to work very hard to be ethical. You gain moral humility, which is necessary in science and engineering. You’re only one bad mistake from becoming someone that you once would’ve been disgusted by.

Do we need to change the stories we tell ourselves and others about what it takes to be a good scientist?

It’s interesting who we glorify in science and how divorced from reality it is. If you consider the typical stereotype of heroism in science, it’s about a path where someone makes a discovery through hard work, creates something of tremendous value for the world, and they bestow this gift on the world and receive rewards. It feeds the virtuous cycle between science and the public.

Who are we putting forward as heroes for students to follow? I believe that currently who we make the role models in our field, it’s very narrow. It is the people who’ve achieved the goals of the perverse incentive structure. Who do we point to for students to emulate? Well, it’s the person who’s got the big multimillion-dollar center and is getting all the money, getting all the publications, is at the top of this pyramid supporting all these researchers. Is that the modern hero of science? I guess so, but not to me.

My heroes are people whose story you might not even know. For example, Peter Buxtun exposed the Tuskegee experiment (Buxtun was an epidemiologist once employed by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), who acted as a whistleblower in 1972 to expose an experiment that studied the natural progression of syphilis, which became treatable during the course of the 40-year experiment, in hundreds of poor African-American men under the auspices of free health care). He fought for five years to get the PHS to stop this horrific human experiment. He went through two review panels, fighting, and those panels each time told him to go do something else because they felt there was nothing wrong with the Tuskegee experiment. He didn’t give up. It wasn’t until it got into the press and there was a congressional hearing that folks in positions of power at PHS realized, “Wow, this really looks bad. People are mad at us.” As a result, we now have institutional review boards and human subjects training. To me, he went the true hero’s journey.

Researchers speaking out about science’s dark side are often warned that doing so can be dangerous, because it feeds anti-science rhetoric. How do you respond?

Well, the same logic applied in the Catholic Church when pedophilia was rampant, we now know, and people were stopped from calling it out. Folks in positions of power were saying, “This is going to hurt the church. This is going to hurt our reputation.” I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t get any pleasure from talking about this. The people in the Catholic Church who were whistleblowers did not get pleasure from pointing out that their colleagues were pedophiles. But what is the cost of not speaking out? The cost is people get hurt. The cost is you end up damaging the institution you love even more. It wasn’t until the public learned about it that they finally had no choice but to get this fixed.

Who loves science more: the people who are willfully blind and are fearful of talking honestly about our problems, or someone who loves it so much that they’re willing to try to fix it? No one loves science and engineering more than me. No one loses more sleep over what I’ve had to do than me. It kills me to speak out, but I am not going to sit by and let more people get hurt. I’m not going to let the institution of science and engineering go down this path if I have a word to say about it, because all humanity, all civilization, rests on scientists and engineers doing their jobs, and we cannot do our job if we are not trustworthy. I’m frankly more fearful about what will happen if I don’t speak out than if I lose my career.


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