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Activist Marc Edwards Illuminates Flint Water Crisis Award-winning scientist uncovers corruption impacting American cities

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Marc Edwards standing at podium
Marc Edwards Speaking at AU’s Abramson Family Recital Hall

To what are you loyal? Are you loyal to the truth and humankind, or are you loyal to your friends and institutions?

These are the questions Marc Edwards posed to the American University environmental science community during a presentation at AU's Abramson Family Recital Hall on February 8.

Often referred to as the “plumbing professor,” Edwards spent most of his career studying the waterworks of American cities. Before investigating the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, Edwards gained national attention for exposing high lead levels during the 2001–04 DC water crisis. In 1996, he was awarded a White House presidential faculty fellowship, and in 2007 he was named a MacArthur Fellow, based on his vital role in ensuring the safety of drinking water and in exposing deteriorating water infrastructures in America’s largest cities.

Edwards Investigates Flint Water

The AU Department of Environmental Science hosted Edwards’s visit to American University. His presentation focused on how government science institutions went to great lengths to conceal critical information about the toxic levels of lead in Flint’s water supply.

In 2015, Edwards was contacted by a mom of four children living in Flint. She was concerned about the water safety in her home. Edwards traveled to the city to conduct a study that uncovered high levels of lead in the city’s tap water. The city’s water source had been switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in 2014, exposing more than 100,000 people to high levels of lead.

Edwards connected the scientific misconduct in Flint to the corruption of the DC drinking water crisis by saying, “Because agencies refuse to or are incapable of learning from past mistakes, another crisis like DC was inevitable, which lead us to the contamination in Flint, Michigan.”

For The Public Good

College of Arts and Sciences Acting Dean Lisa Leff referred to Edwards as an ethics leader in the scientific and engineering community. “As AU is looking to continue to grow its science programs, we need to continue to think about the questions that Marc Edwards puts before us. Good science is not only good in a technical sense, but it must also be good in an ethical sense. Today, now more than ever, we need to continue to have the public good in mind.”

CAS Leadership and Ethical Development Program students Deanna Buba (BA environmental studies '21) and Evan Steinberg (BS statistics ’21) reflected on Edwards’s presentation. Buba said, "As an environmental studies major, I was interested in his call to action relating to loyalty. In Flint, the community doesn’t trust its government or its water, even though the problem was eventually corrected. The water crisis left an imprint of distrust throughout the community."

Steinberg added his perspective as a statistic major. “I find hearing about how government programs misuse and ignore statistics, while reporting false data, to be personally hurtful. In my career, I hope to portray data in an intelligent and truthful way that will contribute to the betterment of society.”

Edwards’s Call to Action

At the end of the evening, Edwards returned to his original question in the context of Flint. “What type of world will we live in if we don’t honor loyalty to the truth and humankind, before loyalty to our institutions and our friends?” he asked the audience.

In closing, Edwards recited a quote from Albert Einstein. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”