How the People of Flint Ended Up With Some of the Most Dangerous Tap Water in America

My grandmother used to talk about people “closing the barn door after the horse got out.” That could be applied to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, now trying to slam it shut nearly two years after the people of Flint—and its children, in particular—have been poisoned by lead in their water. He has finally decided to call out the National Guard to distribute  water.

The governor isn’t alone as a villain in this saga. But today, I’d like to call attention to the heroines and heroes of this ongoing tragedy. Some are Flint residents and others are not, but they have all played key roles in bringing this emergency to national attention.

Michigan Public Radio’s Lindsey Smith wrote and produced “Not Safe to Drink,” the most comprehensive documentary on the crisis to date.

She raises this question:

What would you do if your tap water turned brown? If it gave your children a rash every time they took a bath? Or worse, what if it made them sick?

The program is available with transcripts (here are part 1part 2, and part 3).

In the segment titled ” This mom helped uncover what was really going on with Flint’s water,“ we hear the story of stay-at-home mom LeeAnne Walters, whose husband Dennis is in the Navy, and their children Garrett, Gavin, JD, and Kaylie.

The Walters’ 4-year-old twins, Garrett and Gavin, were the first to show problems after swimming in the family pool.

“Gavin started breaking out every time he’d get in the pool,” says Walters. The rash was bad enough that Walters took him to the doctor. “And the doctors kept telling us it was contact dermatitis.” She says they told her that “he’s coming into contact with something that he’s allergic to.” Later, Walters says her doctors suggested it was eczema. They gave her a cortisone cream to rub on Gavin’s rash, but by July 2014, it wasn’t just Gavin. His twin brother Garrett got the rash too.“And we took them in and they told us it was scabies, so we treated them with a pesticide,” says Walters.

Tiny mites cause scabies, and the common treatment is a chemical that’s also in some pesticides. It’s even in some mosquito nets and flea collars.The rash on four-year-old Gavin Walters' foot.Walters rubbed the prescription cream on her twin boys from the neck down.“I spent a ton of money because all the laundry that we had, all the bedding that we had, we took it to a laundromat,” she says. Walters was relieved when the boys’ rash went away, but that feeling didn’t last long.Walters remembers the day the rash came back, because she had a bunch of people over to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation."... all the people that were here swimming and drinking the water, all of them broke out."“And all the people that were here swimming and drinking the water, all of them broke out,” she says.

She scheduled another doctor's appointment for her four-year-olds. She got the same diagnosis, but Walters really had some doubts about the scabies diagnosis, especially after the party.“The third time they tried to convince us that it was scabies, I said, ‘nun-uh, no.’ The cream wasn’t working on Gavin - period. He had that rash for more than a month straight.”Walters wasn’t standing for it anymore, so she took Gavin to a dermatologist down in Brighton. They scraped in between Gavin’s little toes, and put it under the microscope.“And she verified by doing the skin scrapes that there was no scabies. There was no live anything – no dead anything – no eggs, so no scabies,” she says.She still didn’t know what caused the rash, but Walters noticed something. Gavin’s rash flared up every time he swam in the pool, and every time he took a bath. Something clicked.It became clear to her right then that Gavin’s rash was caused by something in the tap water.

In December 2014, the Walters family stopped drinking Flint tap water, and LeeAnne contacted the city. The city sent Mike Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator, out to her home—and she pointed out her water was orange. He had their water tested. He was also the person who notified her that the lead levels were sky high. She took the twins to the doctor, and found out that Gavin had lead poisoning. 

That’s when Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the Michigan ACLU, got involved. Together they produced “Corrosive Impact: Leaded Water and One Flint Family's Toxic Nightmare” and “Hard to Swallow: Toxic Water Under a Toxic System.”

After a state-appointed Emergency Manager severed Flint's ties to the Detroit water system, residents were left to use water pumped in from the Flint River, water they say was not only smelly and toxic but costlier than the clean water they'd received from Detroit. LeeAnne Walters - a stay-at home mom with four sons and a husband in the Navy—had seen other numbers reflecting the quality of drinking water at her Flint home that were devastating. But 13,200? She’d never seen anything like this.

LeeAnne Walters wasn’t through. She contacted Marc Edwards.

Marc Edwards is an environmental engineer, and a professor at Virginia Tech. He’s studied the corrosion of old water systems for decades. Edwards has tested probably 30,000 homes for lead in his career. He’s never seen anyone with higher lead levels than Lee Anne Walters’ home in Flint.

On that warm, Tuesday afternoon in August, when Walters called Edwards to tell him how awful that meeting with the state went, Edwards remembers hanging up the phone and physically shaking with anger. “I mean this is an imminent and substantial endangerment to children, and for me sitting 15 hours away, I can't believe how people could just sit there and let other children drink that water,” says Edwards.

“I mean, how could you do that?” Edwards couldn’t sleep. He decided he had to drop everything. He got four grad students together, and a bunch of lead test kits. Two days later, they loaded up in Edwards’ 13-year-old white “soccer mom” mini-van and drove 15 hours straight – directly to Flint.

You can read the story of the research activism on the Flint Water Study website.

This was not the first time Edwards and his researchers have been in the news for dealing with lead in a major U.S. city’s drinking water.

Edwards's research in the mid-1990s focused on an increasing incidence of pinhole leaks in copper water pipes. Homeowners contacted him about the leaks, some of which were occurring 18 months after installation. After a century of using copper for water pipes, the expectation is that they will last for 50 years in residential applications. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) funded Edwards's research into the cause of the leaks.

A group of Washington, DC homeowners asked Edwards to investigate their corroding copper pipes in March 2003. Suspecting the water, he tested for lead. The accepted limit for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Edwards's meter, which could read values up to 140 ppb, showed off-the-scale readings even after he had diluted the sample to ten percent of its original strength. The water contained at least 1,250 ppb of lead. "Some of it would literally have to be classified as a hazardous waste", he said. At the time, WASA recommended that customers in areas served by lead pipes allow the water to run for 30 seconds to one minute as a precaution. Edwards's tests showed that the highest lead levels occurred 30 seconds to a few minutes after the tap was opened.

When Edwards brought his concerns to WASA, the agency threatened to withhold future monitoring data and research funding from him unless he stopped working with the homeowners. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discontinued its subcontract with him. With his funding cut off, Edwards paid his engineering students out of his own pocket so that they could continue the research

Meanwhile, at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was looking at data on lead levels in blood samples.

Although the residents of Flint, Mich., had been complaining for months about the color, smell and taste of the community’s water, state and local officials maintained the water supply was safe. Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H. FAAP, however, was not convinced. A dinner party conversation with a water-quality expert stoked the Flint pediatrician’s curiosity and compelled her to seek evidence that would prove the water supply was toxic.“As the stewards of these children, it is our responsibility to protect them,” said Dr. Hanna-Attisha, a mother of two. “When there is a clear violation of public health that is going to impact these kids today and forever, we couldn’t not do anything.”


Dr. Hanna-Attisha released her data on Sept. 24, but officials refused to accept the findings. They called her work “unfortunate” and said it fueled public discontentment in a time of “near hysteria.” Despite a “constant nauseous feeling” and minimal sleep, Dr. Hanna-Attisha stood her ground. Her team had checked and double-checked the data, run p-values over and over again. They knew they were right.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha asked Eden Wells, M.D., the state’s chief medical executive, to take a closer look. The two doctors, who had worked together on immunization promotion earlier in the year, compared Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s results with the testing performed by state epidemiologists. They noticed the state’s sample included children who would not normally drink Flint water. After reanalyzing their data, state epidemiologists confirmed Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings: The water supply was contaminated with lead. Finally, the children of Flint had been heard.

Community activism and outrage in Flint has been ongoing. Melissa Mays, co-founder of the activist group Water You Fighting For?, has her own story to tell.

“My children would ask me, ‘Why does the water smell funny? Why is the water yellow?’ They would come running out of the bathroom screaming because the bath would be yellow or blue, and they’d say, ‘Mom, something’s wrong with the water again.’” Mays says the water quality directly impacted all three of her children’s health, potentially with long-term consequences. Tests confirmed that everyone in the family has high levels of lead, copper, aluminum, tin and chromium in their bloodstream.  

“My middle child is 12,” continues Mays. “He fell off his bike and he has two buckle fractures in his wrists, just from falling over. So his bones are weaker. My oldest has holes in the smooth sides of his teeth. The dentist believes it’s because of the lead. And my youngest is still struggling. We can’t get his white blood cell count above 4, when a year and a half ago, it was 10.4. So his immune system is compromised, and he’s getting sick basically whenever somebody sneezes. And they’re all now struggling in school: memory, brain fog. ... I’m terrified for my kids.”

Mays formed “Water You Fighting For,” a group that aimed to raise awareness of the problem, and to call on the government to act. But rather than anger at the dangerous levels of chemicals, she received ridicule. The authorities continued to encourage residents to drink the water, despite knowledge that it was potentially harmful. The former mayor would even go on TV and drink tap water, just to show it was safe.

Lanice Lawson and her nephew Leon started collecting and distributing thousands of bottles of water and raising money to get more via an effort called Bottles for the Babies. And Rachel Maddow’s intense recent coverage has helped bring the situation to the attention of a national audience. 

Lead in paint (and now in water) has historically been a major public health issue, with activists facing off against special interests.

Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, details that history.

In this incisive examination of lead poisoning during the past half century, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner focus on one of the most contentious and bitter battles in the history of public health. Lead Warsdetails how the nature of the epidemic has changed and highlights the dilemmas public health agencies face today in terms of prevention strategies and chronic illness linked to low levels of toxic exposure. The authors use the opinion by Maryland’s Court of Appeals—which considered whether researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s prestigious Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) engaged in unethical research on 108 African-American children—as a springboard to ask fundamental questions about the practice and future of public health. Lead Wars chronicles the obstacles faced by public health workers in the conservative, pro-business, anti-regulatory climate that took off in the Reagan years and that stymied efforts to eliminate lead from the environments and the bodies of American children.

I have deeply personal (as well as political) reasons for following what is happening in Flint. As a child, my parents used to take me to visit the daughter of friends at a New York state mental hospital. She had lead poisoning from eating the paint on her crib, and became too violent for her parents to keep her at home. I never forgot her, and while a Young Lords activist in New York City, helped mount a campaign to test all the children in our community. Jack Newfield, a well-known columnist for the Village Voice,did a series of articles about our actions—which ultimately forced the city Department of Health and city politicians, including Mayor John Lindsey, to address the issue. I know from past experience that apologies are not going to cure children with lead poisoning.

Community activists are calling for Gov. Snyder’s arrest.

The impact of this preventable tragedy will affect families in Flint for the rest of their lives. Flint’s new mayor, Karen Weaver, has said replacing the pipes could cost $1.5 billion.

But there is no dollar amount that can pay for the human cost to children and their parents.

Melissa Mays says after Flint switched its water supply her sons went from being straight-A students to struggling with basic studies. “And I worry because they’re gonna need tutors,” Mays said. “Because I don’t want them to just be set aside and (told) ‘Well okay, your IQ’s a little lower.’ No. I want them to be where they were before this happened.” Yet Mays says there’s little money available for tutors. Daily life in Flint has drained her family’s savings.

“Our garbage disposal just corroded, so that’s another hundred bucks. Went through three water heaters and they’re $500 a pop. And that was…that was it. ‘Cause the rest of it’s gone towards medication. Me being off work and he’s had to miss work from time to time to take care of me and the kids. So yeah, we’re paycheck to paycheck at this point.”

Ironically Mays says her water bills have skyrocketed. Refuse to pay them and the city will shut off the taps. On top of that, Child Protective Services could remove any children living in a house with no running water.

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