Virginia Tech professor uncovered truth about lead in D.C. water

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor, challenged a 2004 federal report that played down the risk of lead in the D.C. water supply.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor, challenged a 2004 federal report that played down the risk of lead in the D.C. water supply. (John Mccormick/courtesy Of Virginia Tech)
By Robert McCartney
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sometimes Don Quixote beats the windmill.

It happened for Marc Edwards, a lean, intense Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor. Drawing on what he called his own "world-class stubbornness," he mounted a six-year campaign that succeeded last week in forcing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to admit that it had misled the public about the risk of lead in the District's drinking water.

The CDC, which is the nation's principal public health agency, made the confession in a "Notice to Readers" published in an official weekly bulletin Friday. It came a day after a scathing House subcommittee report said the agency knowingly used flawed and incomplete data when it assured D.C. residents in 2004 that their health hadn't been hurt by spikes in lead in the drinking water.

The events represented a full vindication for Edwards. He had embarked on the painstaking, solo investigation primarily because he was outraged that the CDC's original report was being used across the country as a reason to relax concern about lead in the water. Now he has the House report to back up his research.

"Until yesterday, I didn't really feel I had what I needed to prevent future harm," Edwards, 46, said in an interview at a downtown D.C. coffee shop Friday. "I feel a sense of relief, and I'm appalled at how difficult it was."

It's not a final victory yet. Edwards thinks the CDC is still trying to "rewrite history" by refusing to admit that it consciously understated the lead risk in water. He thinks it did so because it was worried about distracting the public from another health risk, leaded paint, which has long been a CDC priority.

Other experts think that's plausible but see other possible explanations as well. Perhaps the CDC just did slapdash research and rushed out a report prematurely because of pressure at the time to respond to the D.C. water crisis. Then, like any bureaucracy, the agency turned defensive and resisted admitting error when Edwards started picking apart its data and analysis.

"I don't know if it was sloppy on their part [or] if somebody twisted their arm to see it come out this way," said James Elder, former national director of groundwater and drinking water for the Environmental Protection Agency.

In any case, Elder said, Edwards gets credit for holding the agency to account. "Had Edwards not gotten involved, this would never have come out," he said.

Edwards's effort cost him thousands of hours away from his young family in Blacksburg. Officials at the CDC and the EPA tried to smear his professional reputation, dismissing him as just an engineer rather than a qualified health professional.

For a while, the crusade cost Edwards money as well. In 2004, he passed up a $100,000 EPA contract to consult on the issue, because he felt that he would be working for the wrong side. He put his family in debt by spending tens of thousands of dollars, mostly on fees for endless Freedom of Information Act requests to get data critical to his research.

"It's something I took on not quite as a hobby, but more as a curse that I was carrying around all those years," Edwards said.

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