'Leading expert' studies lead in water, pipe corrosion

Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, has worked with corrosion in pipes for more than two decades and has become one of the leading experts in the field.

Edwards has been cited “among the best academic researchers nationally and internationally who addresses current and emerging issues in potable water treatment.” He is “among the world’s leading experts in the causes and control of copper and lead corrosion,” according to Charles O’Melia of the National Academy of Engineering.

This expert was called “The Plumbing Professor” by TIME Magazine and “The Water Guy” by Prism.

   

Professor Marc Edwards wears a wet suit while he tests water in a culvert. After receiving his degree in bio-physics, Edwards planned to go to veterinary or medical school. He was then, however, intrigued by the Love Canal tragedy and motivated by a desire to help people, and decided to apply to graduate schools in environmental engineering. He says environmental engineering ''was a great area that you could apply science and engineering to help people protect the environment.''

Edwards received national attention when he and his graduate students worked on problems associated with hazardous levels of lead in Washington, D.C.'s drinking water.

“We were concerned with the extent that the public was being informed and the warnings that people were not being given about the high lead,” Edwards said. Customers also “had pinhole leaks in copper tube and the water utility didn’t think any of this was their problem.”

Edwards said he was influenced by scientific curiosity, anger at what was going on, his own stubbornness, and the idea that he felt that if they did not stay involved, more problems would continue to occur.

“All the students and myself had a deep feeling of empathy for the children and the people in Washington, D.C., who were unnecessarily exposed to this hazard through no fault of their own,” Edwards said.

Edwards and his graduate students helped to reveal that chloramine, a disinfectant used to treat drinking water, was causing lead to leach from lead pipes in thousands of homes. Their later research also clearly tied cases of childhood lead poisoning to the high lead, exposed problems with very high lead in Washington, D.C. public schools, and revealed that an expensive pipe replacement strategies designed to remediate the lead problem was actually making the problem worse.

   

This image shows corrosion within a copper water pipe. This image shows corrosion within a copper water pipe.

“Some of the water coming out of the tap literally would be classified as hazardous waste. It had more than 5,000 parts per billion lead in it,” Edwards said.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that children living in the homes “remediated” by the pipe replacement techniques Edwards spoke out against, had a 400 percent increased incidence of lead poisoning.  The problems with school water were fixed by the installation of filtration systems.  The head of the local water utility was eventually fired for his handling of the lead issues and a whistleblower won a lawsuit.    

Recounting the work since 2004, Edwards acknowledged that the duty of an engineer to protect the public welfare can be onerous. 

“You cannot give up until you are sure things are safe, or that someone responsible who cares about the public is in charge,” Edwards said.  But he also acknowledged that “doing the right thing is not only an obligation, but it can also be very satisfying, and represents the pinnacle of engineering practice.” 

Although some aspects of the work in Washington, D.C.’s water quality continues today, Edwards’ work has influenced changes in lead and water-related regulations. According to Edwards, new standards have been implemented at the national level to regulate the amount of lead that comes from brass products. In addition, many schools in the United States have passed laws locally, aside from the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, about the level of lead allowed in water.

Edwards attributes much of the progress and success to the hard work of his students. According to him, these students have won about 23 nationally recognized research awards for their work.

“That’s what I live for,” Edwards said about working with his students. “You get paid to help others realize their potential, to create new knowledge that benefits society.”  

   

Marc Edwards takes a sample from a leaking pipe in his laboratory. Marc Edwards takes a water sample from a leaking pipe in his laboratory.

Edwards is currently working on studying lead issues as it relates to schools and was recently awarded a grant on the subject from the National Science Foundation. He is also looking at corrosion for plumbing materials, concrete, and copper, and also at many problems consumers have with bad tasting water and pathogens that are growing in the water heater in their homes.

“Before we can ‘Invent the Future,’ we need to fully understand the past, what we know and what we do not know as scientists and policy makers,” Edwards said. “We have the freedom, and indeed the duty, to take unpopular stands and point out flaws that others would ignore. Some of these issues are worth fighting for, or fighting over, even if that comes at the expense of more traditional measures of academic success.”

Edwards received a bachelor of science in bio-physics at the University at Buffalo, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and a master’s and a doctorate degree in environmental engineering, both from the University of Washington.

He worked as a senior engineer for James M. Montgomery Consulting Engineers Inc., then returned to the University of Washington in 1991 where he studied corrosion in buildings; he then began teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Edwards began his career at Virginia Tech in 1997 and has since won many awards for his work including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2007 and the Praxis Award in Professional Ethics in 2010. Throughout his career, Edwards has received 18 professional honors and awards, published over 100 peer reviewed journal articles, and received more than $10 million in research funding.

  • Written by Tricia Sangalang of Springfield, Va., who received a bachelor’s degree in communication from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in 2008.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at (540) 231-4787

About civil and environmental engineering research

The Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, which is ranked in the top 10 accredited civil and environmental engineering departments by the U.S. News and World Report Survey, conducts research in 11 research centers in these areas:

Edwards in the news

Did you know?

  • Copper is the most widely used material for plumbing systems. Over 5.3 million miles of copper plumbing tube has been installed in 80 percent of all U.S. buildings since 1963.
    ToolBase Services, c/o NAHB Research Center
  • Copper pipe corrosion costs the United States more than $1 billion a year.
    Clean Water Systems and Stores Inc.
  • According to reports from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), most copper pinhole leaks occur in older homes, a majority of which were built before 1970.
    ToolBase Services, c/o NAHB Research Center
  • Exposure to high levels of copper in drinking water can cause gastrointestinal disturbance (including nausea and vomiting) or liver or kidney damage.
    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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