Citizen Science and the Flint Water Crisis

 

Flint Image
LeeAnne Walters shows Dr. Marc Edwards a used filter that was filled with rust after seven days of use (Photo courtesy of FlintWaterStudy.org)

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan decided to switch its water supply source from the Detroit water system to a cheaper alternative, the Flint River. But in exchange for the cheaper price tag, the Flint residents paid a greater price with one of the worst public health crises of the past decade.

Despite concerns from Flint citizens about the quality of the water, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly attributed the problem to the plumbing system. It was 37-year-old mother of four, LeeAnne Walters who, after noticing physical and behavioral changes in her children and herself, set off a chain of events that exposed the national scandal. Eventually, with the support of Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech (VT), Walters discovered lead concentration levels of 13,200 parts per billion in her water, 880 times the maximum concentration allowed by law and more than twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers to be hazardous waste.

Citizen science emerged as an important piece of combating the Flint water crisis. Alarmed by the government’s neglect and the health issues spreading all across Flint, Edwards and Walters began the Flint Water Study, a collaboration between the Flint residents and research team from VT. Using citizen science, the VT researchers provided the Flint residents with kits to sample and test their homes’ drinking water and then analyzed the results to unearth the truth behind Flint’s water quality.

The citizen-driven project illustrates the capacity for nonprofessional scientists to use science in order to address problems that directly affect themselves and their community. While the VT team needed the Flint residents to provide water samples, the Flint residents in turn needed the VT team to conduct the analysis. In short, both parties achieved mutually beneficial results and the partnership helped expose the scandal. Surprisingly, the “traditional” problems associated with citizen science, including the inability to mobilize the local constituent base and the lack of collaboration between citizens and professional scientists, were not the obstacles in Flint.

Despite the glaring evidence from the Flint Water Study of exceedingly high levels of lead content in the water — and an emergency declaration from President Obama — neither city nor state leaders have provided a comprehensive plan to monitor water quality or address the lead contamination.

The Flint water crisis is far from over—the city is now in a state of emergency, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality resigned, and the fundamental problem of lead-contaminated water persists. Despite the long battle that still lies ahead, however, the collaboration of different disciplines demonstrates the integral role citizen science can play in mobilizing change.

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