VA Tech Students Live Their Professional Ethics.

Attention all health professional students! I would like to introduce you to 3 friends of mine. Well, to be accurate, they are not really friends, in fact I have never met them in person. Nonetheless, I greatly admire them, and am anxious for you to know their names.

They are William Rhoads, Rebekah Martin, and Siddhartha Roy. You may not know them, but they are at least aware of you. They recently wrote: “Engineers don’t take oaths similar to medical doctors’ Hippocratic Oath, but maybe we should. As a start, we have all made personal and professional pledges that include the first Canon of Civil Engineering: to uphold the health and well-being of the public above all else. In doing so, we affirm Virginia Tech’s motto, ‘Ut prosim,’ which means, ‘That I may serve.’”

The three are engineering doctoral students of Virginia Tech professor, Dr. Marc Edwards. In April, Dr. Edwards was contacted out of the blue by Lee Anne Walters, a Flint, Michigan mother of a lead-poisoned child. By then, Ms. Walters, had been betrayed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), who would subsequently be proven to have “violated federal regulations”. Once obstructed, Ms. Walters sent tap water samples from her home to EPA Region 5 employee, Miguel Del Toral, who then collaborated with Dr. Edwards, and discovered that the tap water contained 2,000 parts per billion of lead, 130 times the allowable level.

When they sent the findings back to the MDEQ, they encountered a wholesale cover-up, and no corrective action. By then, the MDEQ was fully aware of the cause of the environmental disaster – a cost-saving 2014 action which switched the city from treated Detroit water to untreated Flint River water whose corrosive chemicals were leaching lead from ancient water pipes into the drinking water.

What to do? Edwards and his students discussed it, not just as a scientific challenge, but as an ethical dilemma. In the face of no committed resources, no geographic legitimacy, and active obstruction from the regional governmental body, there was more than enough reason to drop the issue. After all, here they were, on a campus in Virginia, 500 miles southeast of Flint. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, Dr. Edward, encouraged by his students, which now included two dozen volunteers, went “all in”. Edwards halted other funded research, and shifted $150,000 to the effort. Their first step was to mail out 300 sampling kits to Flint volunteers, who subsequently gathered 861 water samples over a single month.(MDEQ had run only 7 tests in the prior 6 months). The sample collection was subjected to very rigorous tracking and management since the students knew the validity of results would be challenged by the MDEQ

Next, The Virginia Tech students made several visits to Flint, meeting with residents, involving them in advocacy planning, and establishing trust which had long since disappeared. When requests for records went unanswered, the students demanded the files under the Freedom of Information Act, and uncovered proof that the MDEQ had misinformed the EPA that there was a corrosive control program in place, and had illegally discarded customer samples. Finally, the group teamed up with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Medical Center and collected and released results of the blood lead levels of Flint children.

These final actions tripped a state of emergency, a switch back to Detroit water and direct involvement of the Obama Administration. MDEQ received a blistering review by Virginia Tech professor, Yanna Lambrinidou, who wrote that they were “understaffed, underfunded, lack knowledge and experience.” The students could have easily left it there, a isolated case of the bad guys brought to justice. But they and their Research professor sponsor knew instinctively that this was not the case. Rather, they examined the structural deficits that allowed this to happen:

  1. 150,000 different public water utilities in the U.S., with highly variable standards of excellence in examining the nation’s water for more than 80 contaminants.
  2. High degrees of unreliable reporting up though the vertical system of control – from local, to regional EPA, to national EPA.
  3. Highly variable levels of skill and engineering expertise within local water management offices.
  4. An EPA that is under-resourced in personnel and funding.

As impressive are the professional insights William, and Rebekah and Siddhartha have drawn from their unique educational mission.

They said:

“We are worried that a reward structure has developed that supports mainly self-promotion and dissuades the altruistic motives to do science for the public good that attracted many of us to the profession in the first place.”

“Our experience in Flint has shown us some unpleasant costs of doing good science. It can mean burning bridges to potential funding, and damage to your name and professional reputation. There also are emotional costs associated with distinguishing right from wrong in moral and ethical gray areas, and personal costs when you begin to question yourself, your motives and your ability to make a difference.”

Each and every health professional student could do well to emulate these three, and their fellow students, who went “all in” in serving the “first Canon of Civil Engineering: to uphold the health and well-being of the public above all else.” And for your teachers, many of whom have become entangled in the “Medical-Industrial Complex”, would each of them stand tall if faced with a similar call to action?