Mayor Tom Barrett made a surprise water announcement Wednesday saying anyone living in a home built before 1951 should install water filters to protect residents from possible lead poisoning.
He issued the advice while taking part in a public policy conference at Marquette University Law School.
Sitting on the same panel was Marc Edwards, a now famous environmental engineering professor from Virginia Tech. Edwards not only helped to spotlight Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, but years earlier he investigated a public health disaster in Washington D.C. that ended with a Congressional investigation.
This year, Edwards did some water sampling in Milwaukee.
“I think I agree that they’re probably meeting the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, but it’s now acknowledged that this rule is 25 years old," he said. "It’s full of loopholes, it’s not sufficiently protective and the idea that we were going to coat these pipes with orthophosphate and make the water safe to drink, it looks a little naive in retrospect. And anyone who has looked at this problem, now feels this way."
Edwards believes Milwaukee is, as he put it, beginning to get its act together.
“At least since early this year, they’ve been honest about this problem. Acknowledging the dangers of partial pipe replacements and further acknowledging that as long as lead pipes are there, the water is not safe for vulnerable populations,” he said.
Edwards said installing filters on faucets will buy Milwaukee time to safely replace lead lateral lines that blanket the city.
He pointed out that filters have proven to be extremely effective. “Even in Flint, where we had tens of thousands of parts per billion lead coming out of the tap, EPA took hundreds of samples from those worst-case homes and never found a case where more than 2 or 3 ppb was going through the filter. So the filters have worked in our lab, they’ve worked in the field. I think we need to better utilize the tool,” he said.
Cities such as Flint or Milwaukee are far from the only places grappling with aging infrastructure and the threat of lead or other contaminants. Edwards said the American public needs to be able to count on the federal agencies charged with safeguarding health and the environment.
“If they can stand up and claim they did nothing wrong in Flint, Michigan, why on earth should we trust them? We have to have trust in our government science agencies. They should to be held to the highest standard, not the lowest,” he said.
Though Edwards might come across as a doom and gloom type, the reality is, he said, he’s just not satisfied yet.
“It’s not good enough at the EPA, at our agencies, it’s not good enough at our academia. And unless we get this culture changed, we’re all going pay a horrible price. I believe in my heart, we are going to get a change,” Edwards said.