How The Washington D.C. Lead Crisis Foreshadowed Flint

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards joins host Stephen Henderson to talk about the D.C. lead crisis, which never made major headlines, and his work in Flint.

The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich.

The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich.

In 2004, the Washington Post reported that a change in water treatment chemicals at the Washington D.C. aqueduct four years earlier had inadvertently triggered the absorption of lead from aging lead service lines and pipes in older homes in the district.

Virginia Tech Daily

Before he played a vital role in the Flint Water Crisis, Professor Marc Edwards was also a key figure in this story. Host Stephen Henderson interviewed Edwards as part of the WDET Book Club, where we’re reading Dr. Mona Hannah Attisha’s book “What the Eyes Don’t See” telling the story of the Flint Water Crisis.

“The D.C. Water Story broke in an alternative newsweekly, the Washington City Paper, on October 18, 2002, through the story of a resident of American University Park whose water tested very high for lead — six to eighteen times the EPA action level,” Attisha writes in her book.

“A plan was implemented to replace 7 percent of those lines each year until the lead levels dropped. Nobody questioned it until the following year, when WASA [D.C. Water and Sewer Authority] hired a young professor of civil engineering to look into the inexplicable increase in pinhole leaks in copper water pipes in the D.C. area.”

Edwards says that the government was so effective in covering up the D.C. lead crisis, that by the time it was exposed the statute of limitations had run out and no charges could be filed. Only five children received some form of financial compensation. Most residents got nothing, not even an apology. The people who caused the lead problem got promoted and the whistle-blowers were fired.

” What do you do when the environmental police are the environmental criminals?” — Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech professor

By 2010, Edwards was angry when no one was being held accountable. At that point, he begin to suspect that another DC-type crisis would be coming soon enough. 

“Unfortunately science is being used as tribal warfare and is under siege,” Edwards says. “We are a post-truth society and a lot of people don’t want to hear the truth. It takes courage to stand up and take an alternative route.” 

Click on the player above to hear host Stephen Henderson interview Marc Edwards about the D.C.-Flint connection.

WDET Book Club

WDET’s 2019 Book Club is hosting a Summer Series featuring her Dr. Mona Hanna Attisha’s book, “What the Eyes Don’t See.” Dr. Attisha is a Flint pediatrician from Hurley Medical, who first brought public attention to the discovery of lead-tainted water, which led to the poisoning of Flint children.

As part of the Book Club, WDET’s Detroit Today is traveling across Southeast Michigan discussing water infrastructure, environmental toxins and the health of waterways. Stephen Henderson is also talking about these issues on the air. 

You can join us in that discussion. Read the book and engage with us online, on the radio and at events throughout the region. Here’s how:

Online: Join The WDET Book Club on Facebook where we will post articles and discussion topics throughout the summer. We’ll also invite guests to participate in targeted discussions you can engage in throughout the next couple of months.

On the radio Listen to 101.9 WDET! We’ll have interviews and conversations about Flint then and now, and more conversations about water quality, and trust in government during Detroit Today. You can listen to them on the radio, on demand and on the Detroit Today Podcast.

Follow us on TwitterFollow hashtag Detroit Today where we will tweet our events, our guests and information about issues of safe water in our sinks, streams and lakes..

Events: We will travel to libraries around the region with guests who played a role in the book. They will tell their own stories about their involvement in the Flint water crisis, and we’ll invite local experts to talk about issues affecting our water in each community.  


  • Detroit Today
    Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.
  • Alaina Fruge
    Alaina Fruge is the producer for the WDET Book Club. She's always taking care of business so catch her when you can because you never know which one of her jobs she'll be at.