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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)

His finances turned around when the work unexpectedly won him a $500,000 MacArthur "genius" grant in 2007. Those are the ones where you don't have to do anything. They just give you the money.

Other rewards have also materialized. He has become a popular speaker at universities, including Princeton and West Point. Villanova gave him an ethics award.

Edwards said the key breakthrough came in early 2008. That's when he finally persuaded Children's National Medical Center to share data so he could do an independent study of lead levels in D.C. children's blood samples. The CDC and other agencies were refusing to provide him with such information.

Once he had the data, Edwards said, "it took me all of an hour to see that something very bad had happened to D.C.'s children." Blood lead levels had risen to dangerous levels, at least partly because of previously reported increases in lead levels in the drinking water. That meant hundreds or thousands of children suffered reduced IQ and organ damage, he said.

It took several months of number-crunching to establish a scientifically valid link between lead in the blood and lead in the water. It led to an award-winning research paper published in January 2009.

That study blew a hole in the CDC's 2004 report. The agency had said "no children" were identified with elevated, unsafe blood levels, "even in homes with the highest water lead levels."

The CDC now concedes that its scientific credibility has suffered a blow. It blames the problem largely on poor writing in the report. "Looking backward six years, it's clear that this report could have been written a little better," said Tom Sinks, deputy director of the CDC's national center for environmental health.

Edwards said the CDC is still trying to hide its misdeeds. "There's a lot of lessons here for how science can go awry, how bureaucracies can use science to hide the truth," Edwards said.

That's why society still needs knights-errant like Edwards. Nowadays, they wield a laptop instead of a lance.


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