A few years back a mother of two in Flint Michigan, upon finding that one of her children was not growing well, called an environmental engineer to test her home’s water supply. The tests revealed elevated levels of lead. This happened right after Flint’s water source was switched from the Detroit river and Lake Huron to the Flint river. Without added corrosion inhibitors, the Flint’s corrosive water caused lead to leach into the water supply network. As of yet, the contaminated water has caused neurotoxity in 12,000 kids. It has also caused a Legionnaires disease outbreak, killing 12 and affecting another 80 people. Now, after several years of fighting against environmental injustice, the city is expecting a new lead pipe network in July 2020.
Rabia Nusrat, Ideaxme’s Public Interviewer and an environmental engineering senior at University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore, interviewed Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer and professor of environmental engineering at University of Virginia, Tech. He has helped expose the DC and Flint water crisis and continually fought for environmental justice, forcing the EPA to revise their regulations about lead and copper contamination.
Watch the complete interview here:
Fighting Environmental Injustice
“In my first job as a civil and environmental engineer, I worked on a problem with blue water in California. Unfortunately, it was the position of the lawyers who worked for the water utility that it was not our problem to fix. It was caused by corrosive water reacting with consumers’ copper pipes. They took this legal position that I believe, in retrospect, was unethical and ultimately, they lost about 30 million dollars and a major lawsuit. I think my first lesson was if you ever want to be sued and deserve it, let a lawyer tell you how to do your job. But I left their resolve to do better if I shouldn’t encounter such scientific and in my opinion, undesirable behavior in the future. And that’s kind of what prepared me for exposing government scientific misconduct in Washington DC and in Michigan.”
Ethics and Heroism: Saving Public Health
“My message is: be very careful what you learn in your education. Your education can teach you wonderful things, but it also trains you to be a coward, a moral coward. It teaches you how to conform and sometimes how to look the other way and be willfully blind when you are not the good guy or part of a team that’s the bad guys. So, I think this is something that we have to be very, very careful about. I often tell students it’s the people the world can’t change who will change the world and I think that’s important. ”
“You could wake up someday and find yourself doing something that you would once have abhorred. That is the default condition. It takes a very strong person to remain true to our dreams and aspirations.”
Clarion Call for Environmental Engineers
“I think that life has probably never been better than it’s been right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t strive to do better or that we’re not in danger of losing it all. Because we’re perfectly capable of doing that. I once coined the phrase for what it is that environmental engineers do. It’s saving humankind from itself. So, I think that there’s a lot of big problems out there that still have to be solved. Of course, the biggest problems are always the human dimension. You really want to meet the enemy. More often than not, it is us. So, you have to start with yourself; you have to aspire to be an ethical, honorable person. It’s not so easy in today’s world. Cheating is rewarded unfortunately, that’s why it works. But, you know, there is such a thing as a just society in the sense that you are able to not be unethical yourself, to be a whistleblower and call out or expose unethical actions that can slightly nudge the moral arc of history.”
The original interview has been condensed by Fatima Iftikhar and Syeda Rabia Nusrat.
Credits: Interview by Syeda Rabia Nusrat, ideaxme Public Interviewer, UET, Lahore.
With permission of ideaXme, a global podcast, ambassador and mentor programme. ideaXme interviews the creators and innovators who shape our world. They speak to all those who move the human story forward!™ ideaXme Ltd.
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