VT ethics class students and Flint residents team up for water testing

A new team of students will head to Flint, Michigan next week for the fourth and possibly final round of testing for lead in the water supply.

Two Virginia Tech doctoral students, Pan Ji, of Xianyang, China, and Christina Devine, of Alexandria, Virginia, will guide the group. The goal of the trip is to determine how much water quality has improved since the height of the water crisis in August 2015.

New additions to the Flint Water Study team include students from the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering studying with Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards in his graduate course, Engineering Ethics and the Public. This course arose from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and was co-developed by Yanna Lambrinidou, an adjunct professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region.

“The goal of the class is for students to recognize ethical situations that scientists and engineers face, and to learn what to do when, not if, they are faced with ethical dilemmas,” said Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering. “This includes recognizing the most important responsibility of scientists and engineers, which is to use science to protect ‘the safety, health, and welfare of the public’ – the first canon of the Code of Ethics for civil engineers, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

The best way to do this, Edwards argues, is to understand that science and the public are connected.

“Engineers are a part of society, we’re not apart from society,” said Edwards. “I think it’s important that we reinforce this, and that we retain our ability to learn from and communicate with the public, because what we do is important and can affect their health and well-being.”

Throughout the semester-long course, Edwards and Lambrinidou draw on their experiences in Washington, D.C. There, the pair ultimately helped demonstrate that the time period 2001-2004 when lead in water was high, contributed to damagingly high blood lead levels in the district’s children, and was associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes including fetal death and miscarriages. Edwards also revealed scientific misconduct by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In a lot of cases, D.C. included, engineering disasters come to light after members of the public come forward; they ask why their water looks funny or why their children are getting sick. Flint would not have gotten the help it needs had it not been for members of the public like Lee-Anne Walters, who took it upon herself to seek answers to her water issues,” said Mariah Gnegy, of Washington, Pennsylvania, a first-year master’s student in civil and environmental engineering who is headed to Flint next week. “The public is an invaluable, but often overlooked, source of information. In this class, we learn to respect the relationship between science, engineering, and the public and use it to improve our world.”

As part of this fieldwork experience, the students will be paired with citizens in the community in order to collect samples from the same homes around the city. Walters, a Flint citizen activist, will again lead the sampling effort, which is funded by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5.

“There are very complicated relationships between engineers, scientists, the companies they work for, and the general public,” said Gnegy.

The most recent sampling from July 2016 revealed that the lead levels in the city’s drinking water were decreasing. But, the team’s results also showed that there were still isolated cases of lead levels in the triple digitals on the first draw, which comes directly out of the tap after water in the home has been stagnant, or sitting in the pipes and plumbing, for at least six hours.

These isolated cases indicate a slow healing of the city’s piping infrastructure overall, but a fourth round of testing will allow for a broader picture of how much the water quality has changed.

Lead-in-water contamination has been a problem in the city of Flint since the city’s drinking water source switched to the Flint River in April 2014. In October 2015, the city switched its source back to the Detroit water system, but water problems persisted.

A year and a half ago, a special collaboration was born. Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineer, teamed up Flint residents, local activists and ALCU-Michigan to investigate a problem city and state officials would not acknowledge – problems with bacteria, lead, and pipe damage associated with a lack of corrosion control.

Since then, Edwards, Virginia Tech faculty and students and a group of citizen residents led by Walters have been continuously collaborating and monitoring the city’s water.

Two additional rounds of testing, in March and July 2016, revealed decreasing lead levels, though some samples were still well over the U.S. EPA’s designated action level of 15 ppb. This action level is a cost-benefit decision and not a public health standard, as there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

Written by Cassandra Hockman.