In January, a state of emergency was in the city of Flint, Michigan because of dangerous levels of lead in the water supply. The problem started when in 2014 officials chose to get the water from the Flint river, instead of from Detroit as a cost-cutting measure. The new pipes were not protected against corrosion caused by chlorine ions likely to have originated in road salt. Lead is a neurotoxin and its effect on children’s developing brains is thought to be devastating and irreversible: with intelligence, behaviour and growth all negatively affected even with relatively small doses. It is thought up to 8000 children could have been affected, but what this means for the future of the town is yet to be known.

The residents of Flint first noticed a problem with the taste, smell and colour of their water in summer 2014, but officials assured them it was safe. Some residents found the water irritated their skin, making it red and inflamed, but Doctors dismissed it as dermatitis (or scabies). Interviews with residents affected by the crisis underline their desperation and frustration with a system that ignored their concerns. In the face of being ignored or falsely reassured and with nowhere to go for scientific or medical advice from the state, residents took it upon themselves to find it.

They contacted the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency); Marc Edwards, Civil Engineering Professor at Virginia Tech, who exposed high levels of lead in Washington DC’s water in 2003; Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist made famous by her class action suit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and many others. In Marc Edwards, they were lucky to find someone with funding and technical knowledge willing to bypass the state and help them.

After Marc Edwards found dangerously high levels of lead in the water of people’s homes, it was by chance that Dr Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center, heard about the problem and decided to look at her department’s medical records. She confirmed that the number of children with elevated blood lead levels had doubled (and in some areas tripled) since the city switched to it’s new water supply. She also bypassed the state, going straight to a press conference, but she was criticised and called an ‘unfortunate researcher’ for creating ‘hysteria’.

It was only because of the determination of the residents, and scientists, doctors and engineers working independently of the state that they finally took it seriously. This is a crisis and a tragedy whichever way you look at it, but what does it tell us about access to scientific information? Many people have asked the question: would it have taken so long for officials to investigate and solve the problem in a whiter, wealthier neighbourhood?

Looking at the timeline of events, what is shocking is how long it took between a problem first being noticed (Summer 2014) to a state of emergency being called (in January this year). A wealthier neighbourhood, with more access to expertise and ‘social capital’ would likely have been able to get advice and solutions much quicker. A neighbourhood where those in power were also affected would no doubt have addressed the problem much more quickly.

How do we ensure environmental injustices such as this (or others) don’t happen, or are dealt with responsibly if they do? Why were government scientists, whose job it should be to protect residents, not doing their jobs? Could it be to do with the way science is conducted and funded? In this excellent interview, Marc Edwards spells out his concerns with the way science and academia are not always incentivised for the public good. He emphasises that it was the residents acting as ‘Citizen Scientists’ who did most of the work, while he and his team provided funding and technical expertise.

In cases where state or government scientists are under pressure to conform to a specific narrative or save money, we must ensure that people are responsibly informed of risks, and provided with scientific and technical expertise when it is needed. In the 1970s, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) acted as scientific consultants for the public on issues such as ‘the big stink’ in Battersea and noise pollution at work, providing technical help and equipment to gather evidence and empower the public.

The water crisis in Flint is one of many present day issues where this would be valuable. Issues such as fracking, air pollution and GM foods are examples of areas where the evidence for and against can be murky, with vested interests skewing the debate. These are issues where the public should be able to get independent scientific advice and technical help in solving or investigating a problem.  While this should be something that is covered by government, it is not always the case that government backs scientific research due to other political and financial pressures. For example, a report on a ‘sugar tax’ in the UK was suppressed by the government because it didn’t match their policy. In addition, earlier this year EU scientists from the European Food and Safety Authority (Efsa) disagreed with a World Health Organisation finding that a particular herbicide was carcinogenic, resulting in 96 scientists writing a letter to the EU health commissioner calling on him to disregard the “flawed” Efsa research.

With competing narratives and uncertainty around scientific and environmental issues, the power needs to be given to the people to make informed decisions, based on sound scientific knowledge and evidence. We are still setting up, but PSI intends to be exactly that: a trusted organisation which people without access to scientific and technical help can come and be empowered. We are building a network of scientists and others who will act as scientific consultants for issues where they can have an impact, particularly for those who traditionally have a more limited access to science.

The water crisis in Flint and public access to science

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