Flint resident Angela Hickmon, 56, chants during a protest outside City Hall in downtown Flint, Mich., Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. Michigan’s attorney general named a former prosecutor on Monday to spearhead an investigation into the process that left Flint’s drinking water tainted with lead, though Democrats questioned whether the special counsel would be impartial. (Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

As the investigation into the water crisis in Flint, Mich., continues to unfold, disturbing reports have arisen that raise questions about the integrity of government science agencies and their possible engagement in scientific misconduct or even outright science denial. It’s a component of the story that may represent the next major blow to public trust in science — a problem that is linked to everything from doubt over the existence of anthropogenic climate change to worries over the safety of vaccines.

The story in Flint began when officials opted in the spring of 2014 to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit’s water system, which it had been using for years, to water from the Flint River. More than a year later, growing complaints from city residents about the water’s apparent harmful effects led to investigations that revealed significantly elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children — the water was essentially poisoning them. Ultimately, the news broke that the river water was much more corrosive than the Detroit supply had been and was leaching metal from the lead pipes that are still used in many places throughout the city.

How these decisions came to be made and who will be held responsible for them remain the subject of an ongoing investigation in Flint. What’s disturbing from a scientific angle, however, are reports that independent studies that first indicated a problem in Flint were initially simply dismissed.

Denial in Flint?

David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Wayne State University’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, points to two prime cases in a recent post on the website Science-Based Medicine, where he is the managing editor. The first of these was the case of a water study conducted by a group of Virginia Tech researchers, led by professor Marc Edwards, in the fall of 2015 in response to complaints about the water.

The study, which is published in full online, examined the lead content of drinking water in Flint homes and found that the 90th percentile reading came to 27 parts per billion. For comparison’s sake, the Environmental Protection Agency considers 5 parts per billion to be cause for concern, and 15 parts per billion is the limit beyond which measures must be taken to correct the problem.

And that was nothing compared to readings that showed up in other homes later on. The highest lead levels found by the Flint researchers at any point came to 13,000 parts per billion — far beyond what the EPA would legally designate “toxic waste.” Testing conducted by the city, on the other hand, appeared to show lead levels within reasonable limits.

As Gorski pointed out, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not take kindly to the Virginia Tech study’s results. Rather than sounding the alarm or retesting the city’s results, the DEQ’s communications director reportedly wrote to a local journalist to say that the state was perplexed by Edwards’ results, but not surprised, as “this group specializes in looking for high lead problems.” The Detroit Free Press also reported that the city’s testing results had been, according to emails, “revised by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to wrongly indicate the water was safe to drink.”

State officials “really didn’t want to know the truth about the problems their bad decisions caused,” Edwards told The Washington Post. “So I think you can see that manifested in their public statements, attempting to use power instead of logic and scientific reasoning to defend and hide their actions.”

Similar discredit was awarded to Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrics program director at Michigan’s Hurley Medical Center, who conducted a study around the same time on blood lead levels in Flint children. The study, which was just published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that the incidence of elevated blood lead levels nearly doubled after the change in water source, and in some locations even tripled.

Hanna-Attisha took the unusual step of announcing her results at a press conference prior to the study’s publication. Her study was also criticized by state officials — however, when the state ultimately analyzed its own data using the same methods applied by Hanna-Attisha, it came to similar conclusions.

The link between scientific misconduct and science denial  

Whether these events in Flint constituted “science denial” on the part of city and state officials is debatable, said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University and expert on science policy and philosophy, in an email to The Washington Post.

Science denial is often thought of as “when scientific experts have a consensus on issue X, but parties with a vested interest in not X set out to challenge, undermine or otherwise cast doubt on the science, in an organized way,” she said. An example would be systematic denial on the part of the tobacco industry in the 20th century of tobacco’s links to cancer and other health problems. “It seems to me [the Flint case] falls into the less organized category of ‘no one likes bad news,’” Oreskes said.

However, she added, “That is not to say the government is off the hook: there was clearly a dereliction of duty.  So one question that surely does need to be answered is this: Why didn’t government officials take it seriously when scientists tried to raise an alarm?”

In any case, the events in Flint can at least be likened to a form of scientific misconduct, said Edwards of Virginia Tech — and the effects of such events, especially when they are committed by the government agencies charged with protecting the people, can have egregious impacts on public trust in science, in general, a phenomenon that can lead to the perpetuation of scientific contrarianism, such as the climate denial or anti-vaccine movements.

“Science is based on trust — and what happens when scientists are untrustworthy? We lose,” Edwards said. “We lose the public trust, and it is a danger to the symbiotic relationship between science and the public if that happens.”

Flint is not the first case to shake public trust in institutional or government science, either, Edwards pointed out. Edwards was also involved in uncovering a famous case of lead contamination in Washington, D.C., drinking water in 2004, which led to an investigation implicating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the EPA in poor monitoring and the use of flawed data.

In the wake of such events, the damage to the reputation of scientists everywhere is widespread, according to Edwards. “The public doesn’t trust us with good reason,” he said.

This phenomenon aids the rise of contrarian movements challenging otherwise scientifically accepted ideas, he suggested. “I’ve seen many people who observed something like Washington, D.C. or Flint and became hard-core denialists and conspiracy theorists,” he said. “And honestly I can’t blame them — because if we cannot trust the CDC, if we cannot trust the EPA…who can you trust?”

Oreskes, the scientific historian, agreed that public distrust of science is a problem and is often exacerbated by budget cuts. “The right wing insists that government is the problem, not the solution, and uses that as a justification for cutting government budgets,” she said in her email.  “Then, as a result, government is unable to perform well, and lo and behold, it actually becomes the problem.”

The importance of checks and balances  

The question of how to prevent events like Flint from occurring in the future and protecting the country’s scientific reputation may not have a clear answer. But Edwards suggests that a good starting place would be to institute a better system of checks and balances on agencies that conduct and distribute science.

Independent researchers, not affiliated with the government, would be a good resource, he said –“having someone from the outside review these claims and pressure and examine them dispassionately.”

On that line of thought, Aron Sousa, interim dean of the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University, wrote a recent opinion piece in Newsweek addressing the importance of public universities in cases like Flint.

“It would be a serious mistake to overlook the role of universities in protecting the public welfare in the city,” he wrote, pointing to the work conducted by Edwards and Hanna-Attisha in bringing the city’s issues to light.

He also wrote that “at certain times—when facts are in dispute and concerns dismissed—it takes researchers and universities to use and champion science.”

Later, in an interview with The Washington Post, he added, “There are many examples of…times when scientists have maybe not upheld their responsibility to their field or to the general public good. But these are cases where people at universities were free to do work that needed to be done, protected from undue influence and the freedom to disseminate their results that really actually improve people’s lives.”

Such instances — the cases of Edwards and Hanna-Attisha’s work, for example — should be taken as reinforcement by the public that good science exists and is still being used for the public good, he said.

And as the investigation in Flint continues and our understanding of the events that took place there grows, there is rising hope of preventing another such catastrophe from happening elsewhere. And that’s crucial — not only for protecting the public health in communities like Flint, but for preserving the public faith in science itself.