EPA gives $1.9 million to researcher to find lead in water

Story highlights

  • Grant signals a change in adversarial relationship between EPA and researcher
  • Virginia Tech's Edwards to work with scientists at four other universities

(CNN)The EPA has awarded the Virginia Tech researcher who first identified lead in water systems in Flint, Michigan, and Washington, DC, with a $1.9 million grant to study other American cities where lead-tainted water is suspected -- but where residents are struggling to get help from their governments.

"I think it's cool that the EPA is finally funding this work after 14 years of confrontations," Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards told CNN. "We're going to work from the bottom up, working with people in communities."
Edwards has spent nearly two decades testing water and challenging federal, state and local governments on water quality. His most high-profile work was in Flint in 2014 and Washington in the early 2000s. Both times, he spent years and his own money to prove the government was hiding high levels of lead in water that caused lead poisoning.
    This grant signals a change in that adversarial relationship.
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    "The whole idea is, at the end of this, to come up with a model to predict which cities are likely to have problems," Edwards said. "Which cities are most likely to have lead pipes, and not be following the rules, and then work with communities there to figure out if they do have a problem, then build algorithms for individual homeowners to protect themselves, from sampling to filters."
    In many cities, lead in water is an invisible problem. Underground pipes are not always properly documented, and high lead levels are invisible to residents when they turn on their taps.
    "At a community level, we're going to tell people how they can do the sampling themselves, and maybe subsidize extension programs around the country."
    EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement, "This research will move us one step closer to advancing our work to eradicate lead in drinking water."
    Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and an expert on environmental pollution in children, said the EPA's change in approach was "a good thing," noting that there are water systems across the country with undetected lead levels that are harmful to children.
    "I haven't had much praise for EPA of late, but I support this action," he said.
    According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about half a million American children age 1 to 5 have levels of lead in their blood that require public health action.
    Landrigan says people shouldn't panic, but "I don't mean to positively reassure people. This is an issue that needs thoughtful consideration and needs to be addressed, it can't be blown off."
    Work on the grant will begin in May, with testing taking place in June, July and August -- the time of year considered to be peak for lead levels in water, Edwards said.
    Edwards has built a team that includes researchers from Virginia Tech, Louisiana State University, North Carolina State, University of Iowa, and Texas A&M.
    He said the plan is to start in places where residents have already flagged problems. That means that Cicero, Indiana, just outside of Chicago, is high on his list. Last year, independent testing showed lead levels significantly different than the state-sanctioned testing there.
    Edwards said he also plans to return to Flint to document what's working and what failed for residents who have relied on filters and bottled water during their crisis.
    But the major focus will be on two states which Edwards believes are at the two extremes for dealing with tainted water -- Michigan and Louisiana.
    After Flint, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a tougher lead and copper rule, that would bring the maximum legal level down by more than 30%.
    That would mean that some Michigan water systems that are currently compliant with the law would need to make a change, and officials will have to figure out if the problem exists in city-owned pipes, like they did in Flint, or inside people's home plumbing.
    "Having someone like him continue to focus on Michigan would help get that standard in place," said Ari Adler, spokesman for Gov. Snyder. "It's promising to see that he got this grant, and that he wants to continue working with Michigan. Obviously, he was one of the first people to come here, and one who has stuck with us through Flint. A lot of people have come and gone."
    Louisiana is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It has a lot of poor and small water systems in poor areas that can't afford basic infrastructure upkeep, Edwards said.
    After a lead water crisis in St. Joseph in 2016, Edwards's team plans to return there to measure progress and then go to similar towns where people suspect their water also is not safe.
    Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards paid for pipe replacement in St. Joseph, but said the state simply could not pay to fix water systems across the state.
    "The simple fact of the matter is we can't replicate this effort around the state because we don't have enough money," the governor said during a groundbreaking ceremony March 2017.
    Marc Edwards said that leaves many Louisiana towns with unsafe water. "We have to come up with a paradigm to help these communities help themselves. Louisiana is the worst case," he said.
    One of those small towns, Enterprise, Louisiana, has a population of just about 200, and is struggling to deal with crumbling infrastructure, high costs and dangerous levels of toxins. CNN traveled there with the researcher last year.
    "We knew that the water was bad but we just didn't realize what bad was," said resident John Tiser. "Several thousand dollars that you pay every year just to try to attempt, at this point, not to have brown water."
    With no help from local or state governments, Tiser turned to Marc Edwards for advice on how the town can help itself.
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    "To get somebody independently that is obviously an expert, nationwide expert," Tiser said. "He was very optimistic. He thought our situation was an easy fix ... Basically the quick, easy fix would be people putting filters on their faucets."
    As part of the grant, Marc Edwards wants to develop a plan to help private well owners manage their own water quality. He has found, "on average, their lead problem is as bad as Flint was during the height of the water crisis," he said.
    Private wells supply drinking water to homes across the country in communities that range from "upper middle class to the poorest to the poor," he said. "No one has ever helped these people with private wells, so if we can help these people, that sends a message to everyone else -- you can also help yourself."
    The EPA also announced a separate $1.9 million grant to the Denver-based Water Research Foundation on Wednesday. The money would be used "to create a risk-based model to identify opportunities to mitigate lead exposure from drinking water, including at homes and among children and pregnant women," according to the announcement from the EPA. They will also create a "communication framework" for education and outreach.
    "The ultimate objective of this research is to go beyond advancing the science by providing resources that effectively reduce exposure from lead in drinking water," said Jonathan Cuppett, research manager for the Water Research Foundation.