Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech professor.
(Jim Stroup)

The Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., Sunday night naturally focused heavily on the lead water crisis there, and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders decried the lack of government oversight that allowed children to drink toxic water.

And they know it’s not just Flint’s children who are exposed to poisonous water. There are about 96 million Americans living in areas where lead pipes carry their tap water. And the government has not properly done its part to test the water for lead levels as mandated in a 25-year-old federal law.

So until it does, a nonprofit is taking the problem into its own hands by helping people determine themselves whether their household water is lead contaminated. And it has Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped uncover the lead crises in Washington, D.C., and Flint doing the testing.

Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) is an initiative just a little more than two years old that aims to reduce children’s exposure to chemicals that could harm their brain development. Its original mission was broad, but the Flint crisis spurred its founders to pivot to focus resources on lead in water.

In the months since Edwards offered to test Flint residents’ water for lead levels, he said he’s been inundated daily with requests from individuals and cities appealing for his help. He doesn’t have the manpower to handle the logistics of each request.

So that’s where HBBF has stepped up to provide the behind-the-scenes resources so Edwards can focus on the science. They are selling the lead water test kits to anyone who is worried about their tap water. With the kits, people can take their own water samples as instructed and send them back for Edwards to test in his lab.

Because water is so heavy to ship, the kits cost $65. But if anyone can’t afford that amount, they can purchase a kit for as little as $12. There is also an option to pay more for the kit to offset the cost for those who can’t pay the full amount. So far, the crowdsourcing method is working, said HBBF Executive Director Charlotte Brody.

“There’s no cheap or easy way to do this, and HBBF is making it easier to do it right,” Edwards said.

Many of the communities most at risk are disproportionately low-income. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Sunday night found about half of Americans do not trust the safety of their tap water. African Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites to distrust their water.

One big issue, and a reason why HBBF and Edwards’s work is so crucial, is the evidence that the Environmental Protection Agency may have allowed improper testing of the water, and in some cases allegedly intentionally doing it wrong. State and local utilities can sometimes “game” the results by asking residents to run their tap for a while before collecting the water, which can give an inaccurate reading, Edwards said.

Safe water experts say it’s an ethical dilemma that some government agencies reward people for not reporting problems. That’s because revealing lead water means having to replace the corroded lead pipe infrastructure, which is an expensive bite out of the budget.

Edwards said he was glad Clinton and Sanders held their debate in Flint to bring political muscle to the issue but said the reality is that partisan finger-pointing won’t fix the larger issues that need to be remedied, such as repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure and changing government agency culture where loyalty appears misplaced.

“Government is supposed to solve the problems we can’t solve for ourselves,” Brody said.

The federal government’s Lead and Copper Rule that passed in 1991 as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act already lays out the guidelines that tap water must be tested for lead levels and, if they exceed a certain level, then steps must be taken to inform the public and replace the pipes.

That there’s already a law in place that should have protected Flint’s children is what Edwards finds “so frustrating.”

“The thing that makes me so mad is that we already had the moral and ethical debate,” he said. “That’s what burns me up.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Environmental Protection Agency did the testing of the water. That is done by state and local utilities. 

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