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Flint water crisis shows the danger of a scientific dark age

Updated 10:16 AM ET, Thu March 21, 2019

Editor's Note: Siddhartha Roy and Marc Edwards were leaders of the Virginia Tech Flint Water Study research team that helped expose the depths of the Flint water crisis. Three months after a draft version of their article on Citizen Science Ethics was published in Roy's doctoral dissertation in 2018, Edwards was subject to anonymously authored letters and webpages asserting he was unethical, allegations that he contests. Edwards filed a defamation lawsuit against three individuals, who deny the allegations against them. After this article was published, a federal judge dismissed the defamation claims (see details at the end of the article). Roy is not a party to this suit. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - After comedian Michelle Wolf ended her monologue at the 2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner with the resounding mic drop: "Flint still doesn't have clean water," a parade of celebrities, including Alyssa Milano, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore and Omarosa Manigault, shared similar proclamations.

Yet in our work alongside relief agencies over the last three years, we can attest that Flint's water system has been one of the most talked about, monitored and scrutinized in the world. In fact, after switching back to the relatively pure Lake Huron source water and committing over $100 million of engineering interventions, Flint water has met all federal water safety standards for regulated contaminants -- including those for lead -- since January 2017.

The improved water lead data, initially reported by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, has been independently corroborated by the Environmental Protection Agency, third-, and even fourth-party entities. And, in her 2018 Policy Infrastructure Plan, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rightly noted that "more than 70 communities (in Michigan) have drinking water systems with higher lead levels than Flint."

So, what gives with the "Flint water is still not safe" mantra?

For starters, there is no such thing as completely safe drinking water. Even bottled water has some risks, ranging from bacteria to microplastics.

Meanwhile, Flint still has extremely high water costs, according to a Michigan Radio analysis, and an oversized antiquated water system, which contributed to the initial water crisis in Flint. However, this kind of system also exists and endangers public health in thousands of other American towns and cities. In other words, claiming Flint water is "still not safe" is accurate in a generalized sense, but by that metric other American water systems are also deserving of our financial assistance and concerns about safety.

Sadly, the "still not safe" claim has also been frequently used as a cudgel -- by opportunists aiming to take advantage of the fame, fortune and narrative that the Flint water crisis offers. In our newly published research in "Citizen Science: Theory and Practice," we argue that the trust vacuum created by an initial failure of government at all levels was partly filled by unscientific fearmongering and a victimization narrative that sometimes drowned out reason.

Scientific assessments that the water quality was improving were countered with some falsified data and even harassment by those claiming victimhood (a phenomenon known as "crybullying"). If post-federal emergency Flint illustrates what a scientific dark age might look like in America, it is not a pretty sight.

In 2018, an image of a fire hydrant spewing rust colored water (a result of a lack of corrosion control) during the height of the Flint water crisis in 2015 was shared -- along with a false claim the photo was taken "yesterday." The fire hydrant hoax went viral, supporting the "still unsafe" claim and undermining data indicating Flint water was improving, until other Flint residents exposed the error.

Five days later, the same debunked photo image from 2015 was shared again. It again went viral on social media with a new false title: "Flint, Michigan Water on July 1, 2018. But we are going to get a Space Force." Still more outrage generated from false information. We even documented a troubling instance, where lead fishing sinkers were put inside plumbing, producing dangerously high water lead levels while the homeowner sought financial assistance for contaminated water via GoFundMe.

Such false messaging can undermine public trust and health. In 2016, amid fears about water safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that an estimated nearly 80% of Flint residents had altered their bathing habits in a manner that could adversely affect hygiene -- even as an outbreak of shigellosis dysentery occurred.

After health officials released standard advice to prevent the spread of the disease by encouraging hand-washing, some activists claimed the shigellosis was coming from water, and demanded that officials stop "blaming the victims" and implying Flint residents were "dumb and dirty." An activist later claimed, "We have shigella because we wash our hands" and that the state-supplied filters to protect residents from lead were causing "dysentery."

This pattern has continued. A tragedy of elevated blood lead levels for some Flint children has been exaggerated by some into a claim of permanent brain damage for nearly all children. We personally met individuals who believed the hyperbole -- children who were unduly stigmatized and a few teachers who felt Flint students were so damaged they were not capable of learning. Even if the false claims were successful in generating more empathy and relief funding, is the price justified?

"Still not safe" activists eventually disrupted our presentations at scientific meetings and caused other events to be canceled. A letter accusing us of unethical behavior was written anonymously, then sent to numerous influential scientific and professional organizations; one of us filed a defamation lawsuit to seek redress. Obviously, the entire situation creates a dilemma for those collecting and reporting data showing improvements, which is paradoxically attacked as "bad news" by a few individuals who seek to perpetuate victimization narratives and a sense of crisis.

An unprecedented $600 million in relief funding has been committed to Flint (though not all has been paid out) and the city has had "normal" drinking water since at least early 2017. Yet, as one Flint activist explained to The Guardian, "Who can land on this Earth and tell a Flint resident their water is fine? It'd have to be God." Clearly, unless more of us are willing to uphold truth over self-interest, and exercise courage rather than manufacturing outrage, Flint's water will never be safe.

Editor's note: On March 20, after this article was published, US District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski in Virginia dismissed the defamation and related claims brought by Marc Edwards against three people, saying that he had failed to show that they had defamed him. In addition to ruling on jurisdictional questions, he said the statements to which Edwards objected were constitutionally protected opinion and that none "are of a character sufficient to support a defamation action."

The judge found, "Edwards' decision to voluntarily 'thrust himself into the vortex' of an important and emotionally-fraught public controversy, to engage in advocacy-related work affecting and/or touching on the welfare of Flint residents, and to immerse himself in spirited online exchanges, invited intense scrutiny of his conduct...

"(D)etermining the falsity of the claim that Flint residents caused or contributed to the shigella outbreak by altering their bathing habits... would mire the court in a scientific debate of the sort courts are loathe to resolve in defamation actions. Indeed, Edwards has explicitly stated his intent to lead the court... into just such a morass about the causes of the shigella outbreak by introducing at trial a CDC presentation 'explicitly stating that altered bathing habits contributed to Flint's shigella outbreak.'"

William Moran II, the attorney representing the three people sued by Edwards, told CNN that one letter that takes issue with Edwards was not written anonymously but was signed by 100 individuals including each of the three defendants and 60 Flint residents. Moran says, "The Letter does not accuse Dr. Edwards of unethical behavior and does not mention Dr. Roy, but rather criticizes the former's penchant for drama, ridicule and drowning out Flint resident voices by always rushing into the spotlight."

Moran says there is no evidence Flint residents bathed or washed their hands less frequently as a result of the concerns about water quality. He says, "Public figures and quasi-public officials (Edwards is a member of former Gov. Snyder's Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee) should not silence dissenting views with litigation lest we truly find ourselves in an actual 'scientific dark age.'"


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