By Pierre Home-Douglas
FIRST, MARC EDWARDS DISCOVERED
HIGH LEVELS OF LEAD IN WASHINGTON, D.C.'S, DRINKING
WATER, THEN HE HAD TO PERSUADE THE BUREAUCRACY TO GET THE
It was a problem that had baffled civil engineer Marc Edwards
for a decade. By the time the Virginia Tech professor finally
figured out the answer, he had stumbled across a health issue
that ended up pitting him against the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) and the utility that supplies Washington, D.C.,
with its drinking water. The resulting battle and stress affected
his health, but Edwards persevered and was finally vindicated,
assisted by three graduate students he credits with helping
him through the ordeal.
Edwards is one of the world's leading experts in water
corrosion in home plumbing. In the mid-90s he started getting
calls from homeowners across America who had problems with
pinhole leaks in their home plumbing systems. Edwards points
out that plumbing may sound like a trivial asset in the grand
scheme of things, but the value of pipes in all the buildings
in America adds up to more than a trillion dollars.
pinhole leak in a home isn't so bad, Edwards says, but
once you have two, plumbers and insurers usually recommend
replacing the plumbing, figuring that other leaks are bound
to happen. That's typically a $2,000 to $6,000 investment.
If those leaks cause mold problems inside the walls, the home's
resale value could plummet. The problem was, Edwards discovered,
that no one wanted to take responsibility for the problem.
"Homeowners were basically left to fend for themselves,"
he says. "The historical mentality of the water industry
is that its problem ends at the street. Anything that happens
beyond that, it'll help—but only to a certain
extent, arguing that water may not be the cause. Some of the
homeowners I dealt with literally lost their homes."
What baffled Edwards about the leaks was that they were occurring
in copper pipes, which have been used for more than a century
and typically last for 50 years. Some of the pipes he examined
had developed leaks only 18 months after being installed.
In one house the tube had a leak every inch. "It was
like a sprinkler hose," Edwards recalls. The problems
were often passed off as shoddy plumbing work, a rare batch
of poor copper, or even lightning strikes and stray currents.
Edwards thought otherwise. "I figured something must
have changed in the water."
Flash forward to March 2003. A group of homeowners in Washington,
D.C., had called Edwards in to find out what was eating up
their copper pipe. He had heard that there were occasional
problems with lead in the District's water, so he decided
to sample for lead at the same time. The normally accepted
limit of lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb).
Edwards's meter could register results as high as 140
ppb. The water he tested went right off the scale. Edwards
diluted the sample to 10 percent of its original strength,
and it was still off the scale, indicating that the levels
were in the thousands of parts per billion. "Some of
it would literally have to be classified as a hazardous waste,"
He was flabbergasted. "First off, I didn't believe
my meter. But in the unlikely event that lead values were
that high there was a serious problem that needed to be dealt
with aggressively." Edwards immediately enlisted the
help of graduate students and started taking samples at other
District homes. Lacking conclusive proof and not wanting to
raise an alarm unnecessarily, he didn't publicize his
work. He continued experiments that, ultimately, unearthed
another dimension to the problem.
In the past, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority
(WASA) had advised its customers to let water run from
the tap for 30 seconds to 1 minute to flush all the lead out.
Edwards's sampling, however, indicated that the lead
levels were actually highest in water coming between 30 seconds
and a few minutes. "The water utility and the EPA
were inadvertently causing some people to drink the very worst
water possible," Edwards says.
EPA had subcontracted with Edwards to identify the problem
with lead in the water, and WASA had solicited a proposal
for urgent research. And yet when Edwards's sampling
program proved there was a problem with the advice given to
consumers, WASA did not issue any new instructions. "For
me it was a basic moral question," Edwards declares.
"If you were at all concerned about the health of the
people you served, it was imperative to alert them the instant
you discovered the problem and knew your well-intentioned
advice was wrong."
Then the results from his sampling program stopped coming
from the utility. On January 2 WASA called Edwards with an
ultimatum: either stop working for the homeowners and work
only for the utility, or be cut off from future monitoring
data. "In other words, I was either with them or against
them," Edwards says. The utility also said it would
give the $110,000 of work Edwards had proposed to another
researcher. Up to this point, Edwards had been paying for
the full-time student research out of his own pocket. "There
was no way I could compromise my integrity with the consumers
for research funding, no matter how badly I needed the money."
Edwards flatly refused WASA's demand.
EPA had another surprise. It suddenly discontinued its own
subcontract with him. "That's when I suspected
that WASA and EPA had both made mistakes and were in the same
boat," Edwards recalls. "EPA's action stunned
me. I mistakenly believed its job was to protect public
welfare and enforce the law above all else, and instead EPA
cut me out of my ongoing work on behalf of consumers." Edwards
was so concerned about the lack of clear public warning to
homeowners and the newly discovered dangers, he spent sleepless
weeks worrying about the situation. A marathon runner, he
lost 35 pounds in three weeks. He eventually checked into
the emergency room of a hospital with heart problems.
Finding the Culprit
Then the Washington Post got hold of the story. In January
2004 the paper ran the first of a dozen front-page articles
about the problem. "When that first article hit, people
went berserk," Edwards recalls. The trouble was, the
paper did not correct the flawed advice about flushing the
lead out. In fact, the articles consistently repeated WASA's
advice as a means to protect the consumer from lead exposure.
The publicity alerted politicians to the problem. Congresswoman
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) pushed for a congressional hearing.
Edwards testified in March, and Norton says he was "very,
very credible on the excess amount of lead in D.C. water."
"That credibility," she adds, "was enhanced
by his reasonability. Some of the public health people took
the position that the only safe amount of lead in the water
was zero. He was not willing to say that, so he wasn't
seen as someone who wanted to make it impossible for people
to deliver water in the first place."
At the hearing, Edwards finally identified the culprit that
had caused the lead leaching: chloramine. Made from chlorine
and ammonia, the chemical had replaced chlorine as the disinfectant
for drinking water in Washington, D.C., starting in March
2000. "I had read papers on the effect of chloramines
on lead, and found that 50 years ago people noted some serious
corrosion issues for brass, an alloy of copper, lead, and
zinc," Edwards says. He adds that chloramine leachs
lead not only out of lead pipes but even from so-called lead-free
brass (which actually contains 8 percent lead) and lead-containing
solder used to join copper tubes before it was banned in 1986.
The EPA and WASA were reluctant to accept this hypothesis
until the water utility switched back to using chlorine for
a regular cleanup of its pipes in April. The lead levels immediately
dropped. When it switched back to using chloramine in May,
the levels rose dramatically. Finally, in June 2004, the EPA
ruled that WASA had violated federal law by not properly notifying
the public about unsafe levels of lead in the water. "The
wheels of justice turn slowly," Edwards says, "but
they do turn."
That didn't mean a switch back to chlorine, however.
As Edwards points out, when the EPA drew up its rules for
water contamination in the '90s, it largely considered
concerns about lead contamination an issue of the past, and
inadvertently placed it much lower on the scale of health
worries than substances called organochlorides—suspected
carcinogens caused as a byproduct of chlorination. The new
EPA regulations pressured some utilities to switch to chloramine.
Ironically, as Edwards points out, "The net result is
that in D.C., we are exchanging a few parts per billion of
a suspected carcinogen (organochlorides) for hundreds or even
thousands parts per billion of lead—a known public-health
threat, linked to birth defects and mental retardation."
To counteract the corrosion problem, WASA has decided to include
orthophosphate in its water treatment.
The whole experience has taught Edwards not only about the
frustration of fighting bureaucracy but also something about
the quality of today's engineering students. "You
hear about the fact that North American students are so far
behind their peers in some other countries, they don't
have the same work ethic and they don't know this and
they don't know that, but I will tell you that it almost
brings tears to my eyes to think about the hours they invested
and their commitment. It was really remarkable. You can't
tell me that students of any era would have performed any
"At times," he adds, "I wanted to give
up because I didn't have money and I was paying them
piecemeal out of my own pocket, but they were so enthusiastic
about working on something that would help consumers—something
that was also new scientifically—I didn't have
the heart to tell them we had to stop."
Edwards grew up near Buffalo, where he completed an undergraduate
degree in biophysics at SUNY Buffalo. He then went to graduate
school—in engineering. "I visited all kinds of
programs and I had the best feel for the people in environmental
engineering. I thought that this is an area where you can
solve real problems that impact people's everyday lives."
He completed a Ph.D. at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Since then, he has worked as a consultant on corrosion problems
with water authorities around the world, from Chile to Australia,
from Korea to Germany. He joined Virginia Tech's department
of civil and environmental engineering in 1997. Today, the
40-year-old teaches courses in water treatment. "The
students are the best part of the job," he says. "It's
great to work with young people who feel a deep sense of commitment,
who are willing to sacrifice their time and effort to advance
scientific understanding on behalf of the public." Edwards
also serves as president of the Association of Environmental
Engineering and Science Professors, which he says was very
supportive during his battle with WASA and the EPA.
Edwards, his wife, and two pre-school children live in Blacksburg,
Va., where he indulges his passion of growing exotic fruit
and nut trees like pawpaws, kiwis, and persimmon. "Why
I do it, I don't really know," he says with a
chuckle. He finds the hobby fascinating even though he admits
that it takes many years to see results. "Actually,
it's a lot like research. You have to invest the years
before you see the fruits of your labor. Some of the trees
I planted take 10 years before there is even a hope of seeing
results. He pauses for a couple of seconds. "Oddly,
it took about the same time before we made any significant
progress in understanding the problem of pinhole leaks in
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.