Listen: Engineer Marc Edwards on Truth-Seeking in an Age of Tribalism
Marc Edwards recently gave a campus talk, "Truth-Seeking in an Age of Tribalism: Lessons from the Flint Water Crisis," in which he examined the preventable failures that led to contaminated water supplies in Washington, D.C., and Flint, Mich. The lecture is the kickoff of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility's Nature of Truth and Evidence series, which seeks to explore how we know what we know and how to engage with those who disagree.
Edwards, an expert on water treatment and corrosion, argues that these crises were environmental crimes perpetrated by government agencies against the country's most vulnerable populations. He further contends that when these regulatory bodies learned the truth, they engaged in systematic cover-ups designed to attack their critics and deny responsibility. Edwards also takes activists to task for exaggerating the severity of the Flint crisis and contributing to a climate of fear and disinformation.
Edwards is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech as well as a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. He has been named one of the most influential people in the world by Fortune, Time, and Politico and has also garnered praise from news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
In addition to the Lang Center, this talk was sponsored by the President's Office, Black Cultural Center, Black Studies, Dean's Division, Center for Innovation and Leadership, Office of Sustainability, Environmental Studies, College Libraries, Human Resources, and the Office of the Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Development.
Brittany: Thank you so much for being here tonight. My name is Brittany, and I am a junior here at Swarthmore, majoring in psychology and environmental studies. And I'm very excited to be introducing Marc Edwards tonight. I was also part of the President's Sustainability Research Fellowship last year, so that's how I got involved with the sustainability efforts. I was working with the Crum Woods, working to get people more engaged in the Crum Woods. If you're interested in sustainability as a student, I highly recommend you apply, applications are open.
I'd also like to mention I'm excited to introduce Marc Edwards tonight because he's also the keynote speaker for our sustainability conference, our sustainability showcase that is happening Friday, in Eldridge Commons, from 11:30 to 1:45 PM. There's also a reception after the talk. There's also a reception after this talk, so we welcome you to join. So thank you.
So tonight we are in the presence of Marc Edwards. And a lot of people have often heard him referred to as a trouble-maker scientists, known for exposing the Flint, Michigan water crisis. He's a man who has been recognized as Virginia Tech's Distinguished Professor, a MacArthur Fellow, and has gained attention from various news outlets across the country, including "The New York Times", "The Washington Post", and "Scientific American". He's been named one of the most influential people in the world, by "Fortune", "Politico" and "Time". And has even been named one of "Foreign Policy Magazine's", 100 Leading Global Thinkers. But after all of Dr. Edwards' work over the years, I don't think he wants us listening to him tonight just for his well-deserved awards.
He is the definition of a passionate and devoted person, giving decades of his life and thousands of dollars of his own money toward uncovering unsafe lead levels in water across the country. He has jeopardized his academic career, and even lost some friends, to save a community from poisoning by the US Government. Nevertheless, Edwards never stopped fighting.
Before we begin, I would like to say thank you to the many departments and offices who have supported this event. These include - and it's a lot of them, so we're gonna play a game, see if you can remember them all with me. The President's Office, The Dean's Division, The Center for Innovation and Leadership, The Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, The Sustainability Office, Environmental Studies, College Libraries, Black Studies, Human Resources, Black Cultural Center, and the Office of the Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development.
Departments have come together tonight to bring Dr. Edwards as part of the "Nature of Truth and Evidence Series" on campus, which seeks to explore the questions; how do we know what we know, and how should we engage with those who disagree? As is the liberal arts tradition, the "Nature of Truth and Evidence Series" highlights these questions, and encourages conversation, without exactly giving the answers. Well, what better way to continue this conversation tonight, than to engage with Dr. Edwards, a man who was told by the government that his truth was nothing more than rabble-rousing. A man who people shamed because he disagreed with the claim that academia and science is too neutral to engage with human rights.
I am most honored to be in the presence of Dr. Marc Edwards tonight, for his undying generosity and compassion for humanity, something I think the world needs more of, and we can all learn from Edwards how to embrace a little more. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming a man who embodies social justice, Dr. Edwards.
Dr. Edwards: Well, thank you just so much for that introduction. I assure you that the honor is all mine to be here today. It's just really inspirational meeting with the students. And this opportunity to talk about my journey of 16 years, which is really a journey of truth-seeking in an age of tribalism. And for me it started when I was about 40, when I was hired for a seemingly routine consulting project, by the US EPA, to solve a problem related to lead in Washington D.C. drinking water. It turned out to be anything but ordinary.
Speaker 3: [inaudible 00:04:26]
Dr. Edwards: [crosstalk 00:04:32] Great. This event eventually became known as one of the great environmental disasters in human history. It's known in the press as the Washington D.C. lead in drinking water crisis. And what makes this unique is that in the history of science and engineering wrongdoing, as it represents misconduct by local and federal government engineers and scientists, the environmental policemen we pay to protect those, became environmental criminals, and allowed an unprecedented exposure to the best known nerve toxin in the most powerful city in America, and perhaps even the world.
And one of things I learned after exploring this for eight years, about 30 hours a week, as a volunteer, and ultimately spending more than a million dollars to uncover this, is that there were actually five brave, honest, ethical scientists and engineers who tried to do the right thing to expose this problem, and in return they were fired. And I didn't know that at the time, all I knew, I wasn't getting straight answers from the EPA. Things were just not adding up, and so a long story, but pretty soon I was no longer hired by the EPA. And it was only after years of work that we eventually were able to show that hundreds, even thousands of D.C. children were lead poisoned. Children were not born due to miscarriages and fetal deaths, because that's one of the manifestations of lead exposure to the drinking water. And this was all covered up by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, who came to town and wrote a falsified scientific report, claiming no one got hurt.
And so this, this no harm conclusion is what covered this up. It wasn't until 2009 that we were able to write a paper that definitively showed scientifically what we had known for actually more than 2000 years of human history, going back to Roman days, that if people drink too much lead in their water, they get lead poisoning. And when this article came out, it prompted a bipartisan congressional investigation into how on earth this could have happened. And this report concluded that what CDC had done was to cover up the harm from lead in water by engaging in scientifically indefensible work. Amongst the many things they did, in this so-called peer reviewed, this paper that they wrote, was to present data that they could not find to this day. And I question whether it even exists.
And so, in the aftermath of this bipartisan report, our team got a lot of high profile publicity, it was written up in "Prism", in "Time" and "Chronicle of Higher Education". And actually, on the journey I also was fortunate enough to get the call from the MacArthur Foundation, which is honestly the best call you can ever get because they just come and give you a check for half a million dollars and never bother you again. I wish everyone in this room could experience that once in their life.
But the unfortunate thing was that the agencies that covered this problem up, they did not learn from their mistakes. So if I was to summarize the take-away message, I'd say that what occurred, they learned that if they attacked good people and defended bad people, they would come out of this okay, because not one person at the five agencies that caused this crime, was held accountable or fired. In fact, they gave themselves gold medal awards for their service. They also got a dangerous arrogance about them, along the lines of, "Hey, if we got away with this, we can get away with anything. But it would be better, if we got better covering up and hiding these problems from the public, because that sure was embarrassing to us." And the types of problems that they got good at covering up were lead in drinking water, for which there was a federal law, and Legionella, for there's not. Lead is the oldest environmental contaminant known to human kind, as I said, that knowledge goes back to Roman times. Legionella's something we just discovered, we're trying to sort out how to deal with that.
So if you don't learn from your mistakes, you're doomed to repeat them. And, with this being the lessons learned, we knew that another Washington D.C. was inevitable, we just didn't know where or when it was going to occur. But we started to plan for that day. And for us, that day came in 2015, when my friend at the US EPA, he's one of the foremost experts on the lead and copper role in the country, started emailing me about a problem in Flint, Michigan. And that proved to be the understatement of the year. But this is sort of what set the stage for our involvement in Flint. And I'm gonna argue that what occurred there was really just an amazing triumph of citizen science. And in many ways it was actually a miracle, a miracle that we got this problem [inaudible 00:10:18], and this vulnerable population protected from further harm.
So how did this story start? Well, it starts like almost all engineering science disasters, someone screwed up, okay. They got lazy, they were stupid, I don't know, we're humans, that's what we do. But they had switched to the local Flint River as a cost-saving measure while a new pipeline was being built. And this is the famous ribbon-cutting ceremony, where they're turning the water on, they're toasting, "Here's to Flint. This is an historic day for us." And that certainly proved to be true, not quite for the reasons they thought, because someone at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, who was overseeing the system, for some reason or another, forgot to follow federal law. They forgot to make sure corrosion control was present in the water.
Corrosion control is one of the most important things we do in drinking water treatment, go figure. That's why we've got a law; thou shalt use corrosion control. Why? Because for every dollar you spend on corrosion control, you'll probably save 10, 100, or $1,000 in damage avoided to your pipe system. Also, that corrosion control lines the pipes and tends to keep the lead and iron out of the water and on the pipe, so it's just a common sense measure, it saves money, it protects the public health, that's why we have a law.
But what happened in Flint was, the residents aren't corrosion control experts, but they knew almost immediately something was going wrong. Reports started coming out on social media that people were bathing and coming out with very, very severe rashes, or breathing difficulties, and after a few months went by, water that looked like this started to come out of the tap. Now, the woman in this picture, she's an amazing person, she's an American hero, and I'm proud to call her my friend, her name is LeeAnne Walters. And what LeeAnne's holding up to this bureaucrat, and she's complaining about this, is the water that came into her house after it was filtered. After it was filtered. And this bureaucrat is telling her, that first of all, "I don't really believe that that's true. But, secondly, if it is, that water's safe." Now that takes a lot of nerve, because we've got to realize something about Flint, which is Flint, for reasons due to the fact of its declining population, and large infrastructure, the residents pay amongst the highest water rates in the world, for water that looks like that.
And we now know that that water is not safe. We now know that water contained hazardous waste levels of lead, so much so that if you had one sip of that water, it would cause lead poisoning of a child, and that's indeed what happened to LeeAnne's children. We also know that that water contained dangerous amounts of Legionella bacteria. How do we know that? Because LeeAnne figured it out. This amazing mom, she witnessed a living experiment in front of her, two twin boys, one of the twins was not growing as fast as the other, both physically and socially, and she questioned why, and she figured out that that twin had elevated lead in his blood, also known as lead poisoning. She figured out that her water had too much lead in it. She reached out to my friend, Miguel Del Torro, and the two of them figured out that federal law was not being followed in Flint. So this mom did it all.
And so, I had learned what was going on from my friend Miguel at EPA, we're trying to plot, because we both know how dysfunctional EPA is at the present moment, and in fact over the last 16 years, when it comes to this lead in water issue. It sounds crazy, but we're sitting there going, how can we make EPA do their job? Enforce federal law in Flint. And we thought about it long and hard, and eventually Miguel, a brave man, near the end of his career, decided to put it on the line, and write a memo that in no uncertain terms laid out the imminent and substantial endangerment that Flint residents were facing. And the thought was, when this memo was written and it came out, EPA would be forced to protect residents of Flint.
And so this is the memo that came out June 24th, 2015, and it was everything Miguel sought to make it. He made it perfectly clear that the absence of corrosion control treatment was a problem that was endangering the health of an entire city, and he was asking EPA to exert emergency powers to protect the residents of Flint, who were not being protected by the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. On the day this memo came out, EPA began to retaliate against Miguel. He was asking, "What did I do wrong?" And he was told by the EPA ethics officer that you are just not to talk to anyone from Flint, or about Flint, again. So, Miguel was out. And the next morning, when he was still very angry about what happened, for being punished for doing his job, he wrote an email to his colleagues, which we discovered through the Freedom of Information Act.
"I'm really, really tired of bad actors being defended. Bad actions being ignored, and people trying to do the right thing, are constantly being subjected to intense scrutiny as if they're the ones doing something wrong. I truly, truly think working here at EPA is"- [crosstalk 00:16:54]
But he's out. Famous last words, right?
So, EPA found a different person to be the point person for Flint, this person was Jennifer Crooks, and she was now the one receiving the calls from Flint residents complaining about their water, of which there were many. Here's an email that she wrote to her friends at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "Yep, another complaint about our favorite water supply, smiley face, let me tell you, this Flint situation is a nasty issue. I've had people call me using four letter words, calling me a crook, but I'm developing a thicker skin." A thicker skin is probably the last thing that's needed at this point.
So, here's the situation, this problem had been going on for months. In the press, it had been noted that General Motors could no longer accept Flint water because it was rusting their car parts. And the state bragged, in internal emails, that they successfully derailed any discussion about that being linked to any health problems with Flint residents. So people are literally marching in the streets. This is the water that they're paying the highest rates in the world for. Young children are being impacted, they have rashes, there's lead exposures that we now know that were occurring. And this whole time, people are being told that Flint water is safe to drink. When anyone with any knowledge about science and engineering knew that that was not true, that includes the EPA and the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Once again, the environmental policemen were the environmental criminals, just like D.C. And this is just so disturbing to me, I cannot begin to tell you. The thought that engineers and scientists would behave this way. And when I read these emails, I was just shocked to see politicians reaching out at the right time, trying to get more information and going to the right people, and asking the right questions, and being lied to. The Mayor of Flint, saw Miguel's memo, and he reached out to Susan Hedman, who runs EPA Region 5, she's the top environmental policeman in the region. And he asked her, "Is there anything I should be concerned about?" In his memo. And Susan Hedman wrote him back right away and apologized that Miguel's memo had been written. And she said, "We're going to vet it, and if there's anything here to be concerned about, we'll get back to you as soon as possible. Have a happy 4th of July."
So the mayor, reassured, now goes on TV to tell everyone, a few days later, that he drinks Flint water all the time, and that they should too. Now, he was later blamed for doing this. But I ask you, who is more guilty? The person who heard a lie and believed it, or the person who told the lie? That's how screwed up this is, the engineers and scientists restored my faith in politicians. But that's the situation. And so at this point, we knew we'd given the system every last chance to work. And if you want to criticize us about anything, it was the idea that it should have worked in the first place, and we waited too long.
At that point we got really, really angry. And we launched our intervention. And the way it rolled out was that we were just gonna break all the rules. Everything we've ever been taught, as academics, about what not to do, we were gonna do that, we were gonna go there. So first off, we had saved up money in a special discretionary account at the school, so that we could launch this effort and not go to jail for using state funds to save the world, because that's illegal. Secondly we had the opportunity here to just pursue science as a public good, in direct collaboration with the public. And we essentially declared war on these unethical science and engineering agencies. And that's what we're waging, we're waging a science war, and you don't fight a war to wound, you fight a war to win.
The most critical weapon that we employed was, goes to Joseph Campbell in [inaudible 00:21:55] "The Hero's Journey", because history has shown that if you want to reach people, you have to tell "The Hero's Journey", I'm sorry. And our strategy was to tell the heroic journey of the Flint resident, as illustrated by me and Walter, and others. And so that was our plan, and the first step in that was to first announce to the world our presence on social media, a site we set up, separate from the university, because if this failed we had to be sure that we could be cut loose from the university with minimal harm. And what we sought to do was to send sampling kits to Flint, Michigan, so that the residents could do the job that the federal agencies, paid to do this job, which was to test their water and see if it was safe. And we provided the funding, the technical support, the analytical support, and the residents did all the hard work, and they did an amazing, amazing job. Ultimately, they were able to show that there was a city-wide lead problem in contradiction to the EPA and the State data, which said there was no problem at all.
The second part of our offensive was to develop simple experiments that anyone could understand, because we had to engage our beleaguered fourth estate, the press, if we wanted to win this battle. And so amongst the experiments that we started, was something just like this, where we had the water from Detroit, which was what was going into Flint before the water crisis, compared to the water in Flint after the crisis. Now the water in the top has no corrosion control, the water on the bottom has corrosion control, and what we did is we put into those waters a little piece of steel that represents the pipes that are present in Flint. And not surprisingly, when that was put into water without corrosion control it turned really, really brown and rusty, because the water ate the pipe up, and in Detroit water, when corrosion control was there, there was much less rust. So it tells a simple story that anyone can understand. This is what you had, now you're here, no wonder Flint residents are complaining, they're not crazy.
Another simple experiment that we launched involved lead, and these are little samples of copper pipe with lead solder on there, and once again, we compared what happened to these samples in Detroit water, which is what they were using before, compared to Flint water without corrosion control. You see the difference in the water and the white stuff, in the Flint water? That's lead. So much lead you can see it. Hazardous waste levels of lead. This is what poisoned LeeAnne's children and was poisoning children all across Flint at that time.
Here we go. One of the great things about science and engineering, is it's reproducible. And the state should've done this test before they brought the Flint plant online. You're supposed to, but they didn't. We said, "This test only took us a week. I have sent you this apparatus, so you can just pour water in, dump it out, pour water in, dump it out, and in a week you can see this same result, and know what you've unleashed against Flint residents." The state refused to do the test. And so this illustrates a really important principal, which is, it's a waste of time to try to reason with unreasonable people. And science and data are useless against folks like this. And this is what I'd learned, in D.C. And if you're dealing with folks like this, unfortunately the only thing that they respond or understand is ridicule. And I feel, I am a nice person, and I did not like to ridicule people, but if it means doing that or standing by and watching a city be destroyed and kids being lead poisoned, yeah, I'll go there.
So, our plan, since the state would not repeat the results, I made a collaboration with a 4th grade classroom. They repeated the experiment and in a week they saw the exact same thing we did, and they got on the local news and the state looked ridiculous, because these 4th graders could show what was happening in Flint. And if that wasn't embarrassing enough, we then went nuclear on them and we engaged a group of Brownie Troop scientists, and we had them write letters to the governor based on what they saw. I compiled all their letters and I sent them FedEx to EPA Headquarters in Washington D.C., and I said, "Isn't it amazing this group of Brownie Troop scientists in Flint understand this problem, and you folks sitting in Washington D.C. don't." And we put this on our website and it ran on a lot of national media, including "The Atlantic", and suddenly the ridicule factor is going through the roof.
We also did the unthinkable, which is to go up and stand on the lawn with Flint residents and present our collaborative results showing a lead problem across the city, and the next day, when we're leaving to the airport, this was headline in "The Flint Journal", and I remember telling my students, "If I'm wrong on this, you're gonna have to get another advisor, because I'm gonna be fired here pretty quick." But thankfully history vindicated us and showed that we were right, that this was an epically bad decision. But this was the first time anyone in Flint had seen anyone from a science and engineering background come in and say, "You are not crazy. What's going on here is just horrible."
And so really, we were just going all in for Flint. We were putting it all on the line for them. And at that point, September 24th, we reached out to the local medical community, worked with an amazing young pediatrician, Dr. [Nona 00:28:21], who repeated the blood lead studies we did in D.C., and he stayed up all night for a week to do that work, because she had the data. And she was able to hold the press conference and show that in real time, Flint residents' blood lead was rising. So we had the link, no corrosion control, high lead in water, records of children with elevated blood lead, and at that point, we'd reached this critical mass of moral courage. The tipping point that was required to get action. So it was October 1st, just six weeks after we launched FlintWaterStudy.org, this became front page in "The New York Times". And the state had said it was impossible to ever go back to Detroit water, they could not do it, but believe me, once this became a national story, they found a way to turn the valve and get Detroit water to flow back into the city of Flint. That happened in early October.
The other thing that we projected, based on our laboratory experiments that they would have lead problem, we also predicted they have a Legionella problem. And the general idea was, if you have no corrosion control, and an unlined iron pipe, you grow a lot of Legionella bacteria, that was my hypothesis. It took us a while to show that, but it eventually did, and it was January of 2016, that we went to the local Department of Health and they admitted that they had known about a Legionella outbreak for some time, but they had no reason to think it was tied to the Flint River. So this is a graph of Legionella cases. This is the time they're on the Flint River here. 12 people died, ultimately, due to the lack of corrosion control, which contributed to this outbreak, which is the third largest Legionella outbreak in US history. The largest one tied to poor management of the drinking water system.
The [inaudible 00:30:17] later showed that the state knew about this and didn't want to tell anyone because the announcement would inflame the situation in Flint. This knowledge was withheld from the public. So at this point, the pressure was just rising. And what we had done, this amazing collaboration that we played our small part in, was to illustrate that what happened in Flint was an environmental crime, it was a crime perpetrated by government agencies against one of our most vulnerable populations, the people of Flint. And this is our poorest city in the country, number one poorest city in the country. And if you, as a society, are judged by how you treat your most vulnerable, we do not look very good right now.
And so President Obama acted to declare a federal emergency, and federal funds started to flow to Flint, the National Guard was mobilized, FEMA was mobilized. Bottled water went to Flint. It became a cause du jour for celebrities to give water to Flint. Children had their blood lead tested. And amongst the other things that are going on is that Flint's water pipes were in horrible, horrible shape to start with, and the lack of corrosion control even made them worse, so this kind of what a commute looks like in Flint right now. Because the water pipes break, they have about 100 times the main breaks per population of a normal US city, and it's like living in a war zone here. And with the announcement of the Legionella problem came out, Governor Schneider correctly noted, wow, this really just added to the whole disaster that we experienced.
So, on this journey I've had just incredible frustration, and one of them is lack of government accountability. And one of the questions I was asking myself at this point in time is; what on earth does it take to get a government official fired? I mean, here you've got a case where federal law was broken, a city's vital infrastructure was destroyed, neighborhoods of children with elevated lead in their blood, you've got 12 people dead from Legionella, what does it take? So we testified to Congress, once I testified with LeeAnne, the next time I testified ... This is my sixth time testifying to Congress, and that's Susan Hedman on the end. That was too close for comfort for me. And it's just a lot of finger-pointing, nothing happens.
But then at that point something unusual happened, which is that I got on Comedy Central. I'll play you this clip from Trevor Noah.
Trevor Noah: The saddest thing about this leak is how little it would have cost to prevent it all.
Speaker 5: This was about $100 a day, all of this could've been avoided for just that small amount of money.
Trevor Noah: $100 a day. Why wouldn't they say something? I want to call out to all my people in Africa right now watching "The Daily Show", because my friends, for only $100 a day we can save a village in America. [crosstalk 00:33:56] So badly in need. Just for the price of five cups of coffee a year.
Dr. Edwards: Alright, so now you've really crossed the line. Now America is an international embarrassment, and that's the threshold. That's the threshold we have to reach to make things happen. So within a week of that, Susan Hedman resigned. To date there's been 15 indictments of civil servants so far, and this is almost unprecedented. Those trials are going on as we speak.
In the aftermath of Flint, investigative reporters started looking around and find out what happened in Flint wasn't that unusual. It's only unusual they got caught, because many of our larger cities were also cheating on the lead in copper rule, to make the lead in water look like it was meeting federal law, when it wasn't. And despite that cheating, despite all that cheating, there's still 5,000 US water systems that are still over the EPA Action limit, so this is a national problem, just like we knew, after the lessons learned in the Washington D.C. crisis.
So this is really a national betrayal. And it's had national implications. Last year bottled water sales exceeded soda sales in this country for the first time. Largely because people's trust in their water has been undermined from Flint. Money started flowing to Flint, federal, state, and private money, to date $600 million has gone to Flint, that's over $67,000 per Flint child. These are unprecedented sums of money. It does my heart good to see that. If you expose an injustice, people do do the right thing in a bipartisan way.
And the unthinkable also happened, we were actually hired by the EPA and the state. And so one day we're fighting them tooth and nail, and the next day they thew in the towel and said sorry, thanked us for exposing corruption, "Can you now please help us fix this problem?" That never happens, but it did. So we've been working on the response now. I've got to say the EPA, once Ms. Hedman was gone, and the state, did an amazing job. The re-dedicated themselves to the mission, they tried to help the people of Flint get this problem fixed. The water in Flint is now no less safe than any other US city.
This is a picture of McLaren Hospital during the crisis, and you can imagine why Legionella bacteria is growing there. This is the same exact tap in March of last year. So the benefits have been profound. But at this point, we started to have something very scary happen. We were having tragedy on top of tragedy, because what we were about to witness is what happens in a society when all trust is gone. When a city loses trust in all institutions, including government agencies, what do they turn to? There's a vacuum. And science anarchists were drawn to this. And I'm gonna tell you some of the examples of what happens.
So one of the things that happened was that some advocates overstated the harm that was done. So by a show of hands, how many people in this room have heard, in the media, that Flint children have been permanently brain damaged by the lead exposure that's occurred? How many of you heard that? Okay. Excellent, that means you're good, you're educated citizens, listening to the media. I know exactly where you got that, because I've read it over and over and over again. Unfortunately that message is just flatly false. This is the actual incidence of elevated blood lead in Flint as a function of time. Now we do see lead in blood has been one of the greatest public health triumphs of the last 20 years, because we got rid of lead in gasoline, in food, and we have regulations and we're controlling lead in paint. In Flint, like other cities, the blood lead of your children is [inaudible 00:38:36], that's the great news. And as you can look at the line of incidents above 10 micrograms per deciliter, almost nothing really happened during the Flint water crisis here. The average blood lead of Flint children continued to go down, and if you look at the incidents of children above 5 micrograms per deciliter, which is the current threshold for elevated blood lead that the CDC has, we see that slight bump there, that's the Flint water crisis.
So what happened there is inexcusable, it's horrible, but what happened was merely normal for what was going on in Flint just five years earlier. These children are not, by and large irreversibly brain damaged. Now, they would've been if we hadn't intervened in time, because the lead was really just starting to fall off the pipes, and if we hadn't pulled off that miracle, with Flint residents, very, very serious harm would've occurred.
So why is this happening? Why is this being oversold? Well, because there are advocates out there who want to do the right thing by Flint residents, and to get them funding. And if you don't oversell the harm that's done, you're not gonna get the money. But that also comes at a cost, it comes at a high cost. There are parents in Flint who've heard this story, and who tell their children, "You've been brain damaged, and you can't learn in school." We went to Flint in March of last year, teachers were telling us, they can't teach the children because they've got brain damage. This is the last thing that Flint kids need to hear, with all the other things. With all the other adversity that they face, a message like this. And this kind of message creates real harm, and quite potentially even more harm than the lead exposure.
The other sort of thing that happened after the emergency was declared and everyone was rolling up their sleeves and trying to work on this problem, all these people came and tried to help. And one of those was actor Mark Ruffalo, and he brought his non-profit Water Defense to town. His idea was that he was gonna give these sponges that Water Defense was pushing, they just developed them, and give them to residents so that they could test their water. They came into town, and it's very clear from their first video, they had one intention, and one intention only, which was to claim that the water in Flint was not safe for bathing or showering, before they took a single sample, they announced that on YouTube. And there are reasons that we take baths and showers, basic public hygiene. So important to public health, prevents horrible, horrible diseases. One of those is shigella, which is spread by fecal contact hand to hand. If you ever get this, it's a really horrible disease [inaudible 00:42:05].
What happened in Flint, after Mark Ruffalo's non-profit came to town and started scaring people about the supposed dangers of bathing and showering? Flint was about to experience one of the worst shigella outbreaks in their history. And it started just a week or so after Ruffalo's team came to town. How did they scare people? One of the first things they did is they ran around taking samples that were completely improper. And they claimed that they discovered unprecedented levels of chloroform, which is a carcinogen, and it was more than they'd seen in 62 disasters that they've visited, and they said they measured chloroform in bathtubs, in showers all over the country, and most of the time there's nothing there. Well, it turns out that they had never tested any bathtubs and showers anywhere in the country, contrary to what they said. And moreover, the chief scientist at Water Defense has no scientific credentials at all, he's a failed entrepreneur who tried to sell these sponges to clean up oil spills, and instead he started thinking, I can use them for water testing.
So, we were testing for the chloroforms in Flint, was totally normal, lower than normal. We hired 3rd and 4th party researchers from academic institutions to come in and verify this. [inaudible 00:43:37] from UMass, and Richardson from the University of South Carolina, everyone discovered that the TTHMs and the chloroform in Flint was lower than normal. This message was completely false. But, Flint residents, who'd been betrayed by the government before, betrayed by authority before, they believed it. They went on YouTube, they had all these YouTube videos. Scott Smith from Water Defense, "Bathing in Flint is not safe." They were on the local media telling people that if they let their children bathe in this water they are hurting them and exposing them to carcinogens. And moms and dads started changing their children's bathing habits. Everyone, many people in Flint did this. CDC later studies showed 80% of Flint residents changed their bathing habits, including 75% showered less frequently, 70% were taking shorter showers.
So, we saw what was going on, we tried to reach out to Mr. Ruffalo and tell him the dangers of what he was doing. We set up a conference call, because again, you're trying to reason with people, that's always a first step, and they didn't show up. We told them that if they didn't correct their false messaging, we were gonna call them out. And they just blew us off, so at that point we had a massive confrontation, that was part of the point of "The New York Times" article. But this shigella curve wasn't known at that time. After we wrote up our criticism of Ruffalo, we pretty much got trashed in the national media. You'd think, okay, he would be concerned about his reputation, but you would be wrong. Because they were doubling down, they're gonna double down on their Flint strategy.
So what they did is this non-profit, Water Defense, went out and formed an alliance with an alternative news network, because by this point the normal media would not listen to them, they've been totally discredited. And this network is called The Young Turks Network, and apparently they're like one of the hottest things ever, according to them at least, the largest online news organization in the world. I never heard of them until I started suddenly getting 300 death threats in the course of a week, because they started targeting me.
And so what we decided to do was we had to expose their 12 step program of science, anarchy, fear-mongering. And the way we did is we took their video that they posted online, to expose exactly how they operated. We put this on a blog post. I'm gonna show you snippets of this, so you get an idea of what we're dealing with here. And I must warn you, this is for mature audiences only, and we've rated it 'F' for fear-mongering. Okay, so, everyone's on board for this? You can leave if you want, but okay.
So the first step is to get a kitchen knife and an unsterile water mop.
Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:46:52] If the EPA's not gonna do the testing, I will.
Dr. Edwards: Okay, the next step is to announce to the world, you're gonna find lead and bacteria in the water that no one else has found.
Speaker 6: Scott Smith with the Water Defense Council, he's done private testing in about 30 Flint homes. He has gone through very, very extensively and carefully to find bacteria that the state has not found in Flint. Bacteria in just about every home he's tested. I'm not gonna pretend to know the names of the bacteria.
Dr. Edwards: Okay. The next thing you should establish; why should people listen to you? What are your scientific credentials?
Speaker 6: Scott Smith with the Water Defense Council.
Scott Smith: I said I don't know what a safe shower [inaudible 00:47:43], I'm not a doctor, I'm not a toxicologist, and I'm no PhD in statistics [inaudible 00:47:50].
Speaker 6: I'm no scientist [inaudible 00:47:53] most of you all know this, but I was in special ed from 1st through 3rd grade, I had a learning disability [inaudible 00:48:00]. I needed to be in special ed.
Scott Smith: [inaudible 00:48:04] I'm not a medical expert, but I am an expert on what a medical expert ought to be. Does that sound about right?
Dr. Edwards: Okay, so having established your team's scientific credentials, now go and try to show how dangerous the water is by sampling the outside of a sewer pipe in the basement.
Speaker 6: So we're getting water and what looks like a bacterial fungi, [inaudible 00:48:35] and he's gonna be testing them. And by the way I can really [inaudible 00:48:40]. There we go.
Dr. Edwards: Okay, since the whole point is to find the bacteria that no one else is finding. It's not enough to go collect a sample from the outside of the sewer pipe. When you're preparing the sample to be shipped off to the lab, drop the cap on the floor, rub the cap on your shirt, and oh, by the way, rub your finger across your nose.
Speaker 6: This one here. [inaudible 00:49:20] Okay.
Dr. Edwards: Okay, now you've collected the sample. Send this off to an independent lab who has no idea where this sample came from to get the results.
Scott Smith: The key thing is the independent lab that we go to.
Dr. Edwards: And then, once you get the results, have a prime time expose.
Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:49:41] video of [inaudible 00:49:44] drawing water from a water heater in east Chicago, Indiana that looked like absolute sewage. Scott Smith of Water Defense. We tested it, and boy it did not come out good at all. That's terrible.
Speaker 8: Hello.
Speaker 6: Hey Wanda, good afternoon.
Speaker 9: Hello?
Scott Smith: Hi Lisa it's Scott, happy Friday once again.
Speaker 9: Happy Friday Scott.
Scott Smith: Hi Keisha.
Speaker 10: Hi, how are you?
Scott Smith: Good, how are you, how's your day, how's your Friday? I have your results, and there are some similarities to Flint. As far as your-
Dr. Edwards: Okay, and so for maximum effect, bring Ruffalo out from Hollywood, and explain that what you're doing is citizen science and there's nothing wrong with giving people data.
Mark Ruffalo: Not whether or not my organization is, we're citizen scientists, you know. And so all we're doing is giving people information, and there's nothing wrong with that. The more information people have, the better off they are.
Dr. Edwards: Okay, so when we posted this, it turns out that Hollywood actors take this sort of thing very, very seriously, as do The Young Turks Network. Apparently no sense of humor whatsoever. We started getting emails threatening us, from Mr. [Sheriton 00:51:08], who warned he's working on an additional piece, which "proves you are a hack", and he threatened a public dispute with the largest online news network in the world, unless we took the entire blog post down. On top of that, we got three letters from Ruffalo's attorneys telling us to cease and desist or else we'll see you in court. And we did not take the blog post down, nor did we cease or desist.
We had a few things going our way, one of which was Jordan was caught engaged in an orgy with a subordinate in Flint. And he got fired as part of the #MeToo movement. And we ultimately, through our investigative work found that Scott Smith, working under the guise of a non-profit, in Flint, had actually also launched his own private company called Aquaflex Holdings, and we found their investor pitch online, which was 'to satisfy unmet needs as the Water Defense team exposes problems'. So this is the epic George Orwell quote, that the true genius of advertising is to find a problem and then sell the solution. And we even found, from residents, Mr. Smith promoting safe showers in Flint, by purchasing $11,000 filter system of which he was gonna get $2,100 cut. That really takes some nerve, to got to Flint, scare people, try to push an $11,000 filter on them so they can enjoy a safe bath or shower. And at that point, Mark Ruffalo cut ties with Scott Smith.
So, here you have the aftermath of Flint. This total science anarchy. This total social anarchy. You can only imagine what it's like to live through this from the perspective of Flint resident who's been betrayed by everyone. Betrayed by their government, science and Hollywood. And this is a clip from the launch, a resident talking at the beginning of a "NOVA" documentary on Flint, and you can see the angst, it's very real.
Speaker 12: I have [inaudible 00:53:22] water. My water is not correct. I want to shower at home. I want to be able to use my water, and I want my kids to be healthy.
Dr. Edwards: And so with that, I'll just kind of wrap this up. This is a really, really sad and scary story. And I will remind you of the great scientist and humanitarian, Albert Einstein, who once famously and correctly said, "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything." And that was true then, and it's true today. I will also say, from my own perspective, that this was an amazing experience for me, to be part of this critical mass of moral courage that helped expose the plight of Flint residents. I have lost many of the friends I had when I started this journey, probably 90% plus, but I met other friends. This is a picture of a few of us. This is LeeAnne, Miguel, Nona and myself. I can just tell you at this time, it was just amazing to get up every day with such a sense of purpose. And to do the job that we were born to do. And I just wish everyone could experience something like that just once in their life, be part of something bigger than themselves.
And the other interesting side note is, in this picture we have a renounced Catholic, a communist, a socialist and a republican, and that was never an issue. Not once.
So with that, I'll just thank you for your attention, and open up to any questions you may have.