But as government officials were ignoring and ridiculing residents’ concerns about the safety of their tap water, a small circle of people was setting off alarms. Among them was the team from Virginia Tech.
The team began looking into Flint’s water after its professor, Marc Edwards, spoke with LeeAnne Walters, a resident whose tap water contained alarming amounts of lead. Dr. Edwards, who years earlier had helped expose lead contamination in Washington, D.C., had his students send testing kits to homes in Flint to find out if the problem was widespread.
It will take millions and millions of dollars to fix Flint’s water system and years of health care (and more millions) to treat children exposed to lead, an exposure for which there is no cure. The city’s residents are reeling from the fact that an arrogant error caused their water—an essential ingredient for life—to be hazardous. It’s a sad tale, and it is critical that all of us in public health understand that water is a public health right. Despite the bureaucracies in which our health systems exist, a fundamental public health principle is that we ensure safety. In Flint, that did not happen, and once again, socially and economically disadvantaged people will have suffered the most.
The Flint experience has demonstrated once again the value a university’s faculty members and students can deliver by working in partnership with communities. One Flint resident, quoted in The New York Times, said that the scientists “became the only people that citizens here trust, and it’s still that way.”
That’s the kind of value universities can deliver, and I’m proud of the Virginia Tech team.