Science On Tap: Flint Water Crisis

William Rhoades and Sid Roy share their water crisis experiences with a crowd at Rising Silo Brewery.

“Since we’re at Rising Silo, I’ll start by asking the four main ingredients to beer,” William Rhoades began his presentation April 26, 2018, at the Rising Silo Brewery.  “One of them is definitely water!”

As part of a team under Dr. Marc Edwards, researchers William Rhoades and Sid Roy found themselves at the head of a national event that brought attention to something that most homeowners automatically view as safe. The contamination of Flint, Michigan, drinking water put public mistrust at the forefront. Community members relied on scientific research for answers.

When a resident of Flint named LeeAnn Walters noticed that one of her twin boys was not developing like the other, she discovered at a doctor’s visit that he had elevated blood lead levels. With no answers from the local or state government, Walters reached out to Virginia Tech to help with the problem of a contaminated water supply.

“We do a lot of research concerning tap water,” Roy says. “Flint, Michigan, became one of those rare and precious cases where an entire community was engaged with the scientists to solve the problem.”

Hundreds of outdated lead pipes and bare minimum or non-compliance with meeting state water regulations led to a tireless effort to restore Flint’s water quality. Results of their study allowed the researchers to estimate that 1 in 5 homes had elevated lead in the water. Multiple visits to the area and do-it-yourself lead detector kits were only part of the larger solution.

“Lack of public trust remains the biggest problem and no one knows how to solve it,” Roy stated.

Since the original discovery of lead in Flint’s water, many changes have been made and lead levels are very much reduced, but anxieties are still prevalent in a community that remained a media target for months. Researchers like Roy and Rhoades, along with the rest of the Tech research team, hope these fears will be eliminated in time through education and personal connections with researchers.

Science on Tap is a New River Valley project that brings research to the public.

By Nicole Elbin, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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