Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards — a nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality — is traveling to Flint, Michigan, as part of a National Science Foundation-funded $50,000 one-year study into a “perfect storm” of water distribution system corrosion problems.

Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor with the Virginia Tech Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is part of a 17-person team addressing problems with severe iron and lead corrosion found in Flint city water.

One child already identified as having elevated blood lead lives in a home where water lead levels averaging 2,000 parts per billion of lead in samples were collected over 20 minutes of flushing. That’s more than 200 times the World Health Organization allowable levels for lead in potable water, said Edwards.

The controversy surrounding possible citywide problems with water quality has been reported extensively by media covering Flint. Last week, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency also agreed to send in experts to help consider options to control the rampant corrosion. The story of Virginia Tech’s weeks-long investigation of the water in Flint is extensively documented at the blog, for which civil and environmental engineering doctoral student Siddhartha Roy serves as writer and communications director.

“Flint, Michigan, is currently suffering from a ‘perfect storm’ attributable to out-of-control corrosion of its potable water distribution system,” wrote Edwards in his August proposal to the National Science Foundation, which approved the grant Sept. 13. “The corrosion is undermining water affordability for residents, financial viability of city government, water aesthetics, and hygiene/sanitation.”

Edwards further hypothesized that the corrosion problems “will also create severe chemical/ biological health risks for Flint residents, including elevated levels of lead” and possibly bacteria problems as well. 

“The latter two factors are amongst the most important health problems arising in modern potable water systems,” added Edwards, who has gained national attention for his work in bringing to light water quality issues within Washington, D.C., and for winning a MacAuthor Fellowship in 2007.

Edwards’ team includes fellow civil and environmental engineering faculty member and professor Amy Pruden, and Joe Falkinham, of the Department of Biological Sciences within the Virginia Tech College of Science. Roy is joined in the research by 13 other undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and research scientists on the response team. 

The team already has worked with Flint homeowners, to execute an unprecedented survey of water contamination in their homes. Flint citizens returned 277 sample kits to Virginia Tech out of 300 delivered, which represents a remarkable 90 percent return rate. The results, said Edwards, indicated high levels of lead even in relatively low-risk homes, which is at odds with reports of government authorities. 

Rapid Response Grants are not new to Virginia Tech. The National Science Foundation provided awards previously to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the 2014 West Virginia Elk River chemical spill. Rapid grants are “used for proposals having a severe urgency … including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events,” according to the federal agency.

The Flint situation is unique, said Edwards, in that government authorities continue to insist there is no problem with their water supply, and continues to encourage Flint residents’ tap water consumption.

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