May 28, 2024


Earlier this month, Brittany Thomas received a call that her 11-year-old daughter Janiyah had experienced a seizure at school.

“She’d been seizure-free for about two years now,” said Thomas, a resident of Flint, Michigan. “And they just came back.”

The call took Thomas back to April 2014, when, to save money, the City of Flint switched to a water source that exposed more than 100,000 residents – including up to 12,000 children – to elevated levels of lead and bacteria. Thomas’s family drank bottled water at the time, but they cooked with and bathed in the tap water.

Soon after the switch, Thomas and her two children developed rashes on their skin. Then the children began experiencing frequent seizures that sent them in and out of the hospital. Blood tests revealed they had lead poisoning.

“I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “I’ve been depressed, I’ve been frustrated, stressed out – can’t catch a break.”

Studies later showed that after officials changed Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead levels in their blood doubled – and in some parts of the city, tripled. The switch also exposed residents to the bacteria that causes legionnaires’ disease, leading to as many as 115 deaths.

Despite an outcry from the predominantly African American community, officials at every level of government were slow to respond. It was nearly two years before Barack Obama, then president, declared a state of emergency in Flint. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, a state-established body, concluded that the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis was a “result of systemic racism”.

Now, a decade after the crisis began, kids are still sick, the city is not done replacing lead pipes and families like Thomas’s are still awaiting justice.

“The people of Flint will never trust that water again,” said Pastor Alfred Harris of Concerned Pastors for Social Action. Harris was part of a group of pastors who organized protests and water-filter giveaways, met with lawmakers to urge them to stop sourcing water from the Flint River and sued, along with other groups, the city and state in 2016.

“Flint was a poor community and majority people of color,” Harris said. “If it had been in another community – a majority white or more affluent community – I think actions would have been taken much sooner.”

There is no safe level of lead exposure. The neurotoxin harms nearly all of the body’s functions, is linked to premature births and miscarriages and has been shown to cause learning and behavior problems, among other ailments, in children.

A delivery man hauls bottled water outside of the St Mark Baptist church in Flint, Michigan, on 23 February 2016. Photograph: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

In 2020, the state of Michigan agreed to a $600m settlement with Flint residents. Eighty per cent of that sum would go to children who, like Thomas’s kids, were under 18 when they were exposed to Flint River water, and a district court is now reviewing residents’ claims.

Settlement funds can’t come soon enough for claimants like Thomas, who said she lost her job as a result of needing to respond to her kids’ health problems. “They haven’t told us anything,” she said. “They keep giving us different dates … but nobody hasn’t seen nothing.”

‘It’s like an open sore

A Flint resident for most of her life, Eileen Hayes moved into her townhome in 1996. When lead contaminated her water, she started losing her hair.

“Losing hair on the top of your head changes not only how you can wear your hair, but it changes your self-esteem, how you see yourself, and of course that impacts how you carry yourself,” she said.

Hayes continues to buy her own bottled water, years after the state stopped supplying it. “It would have to be a massive change that would make me stop using bottled water,” she said.

In 2017, as part of a settlement with Flint residents, officials agreed to replace thousands of lead pipes in the city within three years.

Hayes, like many residents, received conflicting information about whether her service lines were checked. “I can’t put the issue behind me until we fix the pipes,” Hayes wrote in a 2023 declaration. “The unfinished program is like an open sore to me.”

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Last month, a judge held the city in contempt of court for failing to comply with the settlement. “It is apparent that the City has failed to abide by the Court’s orders in several respects,” the order read. “And that it has no good reason for its failures.”

Workers prepare to replace a lead water service line at the site of the first Flint home with high lead levels on 4 March 2016. Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A spokesperson for the City of Flint said lead service line replacement was ongoing. “We have completed outreach to more than 31,000 addresses and there are still 1,900 addresses where we have not been able to get consent from residents to do the work,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. The spokesperson said the city completed work at Hayes’s home in 2021.

‘If we had the energy left, we’d cry’

Like Hayes and Thomas, Melissa Mays also pays for bottled water out of pocket. She worries about exposure to microplastics from bottled water, but doesn’t trust the tap.

In 2014, even as some areas of the city had brown tap water, her water was clear. So she and her family continued drinking it. When the city set a boil water advisory for bacteria, she boiled the water. “Nobody told us that was making it a ton worse – concentrating the metals,” she explained.

Her family consumed contaminated tap water for nine months. Now, her three sons have a long list of medical issues and learning challenges. Like Thomas, she too is waiting on settlement funds to help pay for her kids’ healthcare, school tutors and therapy.

Mays said the community was still reeling from the “moral injury” of the crisis – state officials knew of the risks long before telling the public. “We are traumatised from being lied to by the same people that continue to tell us everything’s fine and it’s just in our head,” Mays said.

A spokesperson for the Michigan department of environment, Great Lakes and energy (EGLE) wrote, “EGLE has worked hard to make sure Flint residents have the facts and data they need to trust their water again.” The department said it had “wholly revamped its approach to public drinking water”, with new offices added to oversee water. The official also noted that Flint’s drinking water has met federal standards since July 2016.

The City of Flint said in a statement that it had made major upgrades to water quality monitoring and water infrastructure, including a new backup water source “to ensure residents have access to water in an emergency and will never again be forced to turn to the Flint River as a water source”. While the city’s water is in compliance with federal lead standards of less than 15ppb, the city spokesperson said they recognize that “no amount of lead in water is safe”.

The Environmental Protection Agency oversees and tracks compliance with public water systems in Michigan, including Flint. A spokesperson from the agency wrote in an email: “Every community deserves clean water to drink, and the Biden-Harris Administration is working to ensure no family has to worry whether their water is safe when they turn on the tap. That’s why EPA efforts to ensure safe, reliable drinking water for Flint residents are ongoing.” The spokesperson added that the EPA was leveraging $15bn in funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to identify and replace lead service lines across the country.

Four officials from the local, state and federal governments resigned in the wake of the crisis, including one official from the EPA. Nine leaders in Michigan, including former governor Rick Snyder, were charged with felonies and misdemeanors, but the charges were dropped.

Like many residents, Mays was shocked. “Nobody went to jail. How does that happen in America?” she asked. “If we had the energy left, we’d cry.”



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