Flint Is Still In Crisis, And There’s Another Tainted Water Problem You Might Not Know About

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Brett Carlsen / GettyImages

Melissa Mays, 38, still goes door-to-door handing out bottled water in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. “We still have to take care of each other,” she told ProPublica. “It’s still the poor and poisoned people taking care of the poor and poisoned because the state won’t do it.”

Even though it’s not in the news anymore, Flint is still suffering.

In a nutshell, Flint’s water issues started in 2014, when the city switched their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. According to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources’ Flint River Assessment, the Flint River was of historically poor quality and degraded during the 1970s due to “the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances.”

In 2001, the state ordered the cleanup of 134 polluted sites within the river’s watershed. When the city switched the town’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, they failed to add an anti-corrosive agent to the water. So the pipes corroded, leeching lead into Flint’s water supply. Officials said it was “safe to drink,” but as early as January 2015, children were suffering from “rashes and mysterious illnesses.” Flint eventually switched its water source back to Lake Huron, but the damage to the pipes — the health of the inhabitants — was done. And the tragedies continue.

Most Americans know about the thousands of Flint children afflicted with lead poisoning even if they’ve forgotten about it. But they may not know that in January 2016, the Michigan governor announced an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint: 87 cases, with 10 deaths. According to the CDC, Legionnaire’s disease is a respiratory disease caused by the Legionella bacteria, somewhat akin to severe pneumonia. It “grows and multiplies in human-made water systems,” and people get sick when they inhale the contaminated droplets.

Reports allege that Health Department head Nick Lyon knew about the outbreak for over a year before he told the public. In all, 12 people died and residents suspect that tally is too low — because people, they believe, weren’t tested for the bacteria postmortem. In early June 2017, officials announced that Lyon, along with five other officials, will face charges of involuntary manslaughter, all relating to the deaths that occurred because of Flint’s water crisis. Many are still angry, including members of Flint Rising, that the charges fail to directly implicate the Michigan governor.

Not only are people being charged, the water crisis continues. It’s so bad, in fact, that in late June, Michigan sued the City of Flint in federal court for failing to “approve a long-term drinking water source for its residents.” Flint’s mayor negotiated a long-term deal to keep Flint on water from the Great Lakes Water Authority at reduced cost, but the city council refused to approve it and hasn’t offered an alternative. This will “cause an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health in Flint,” the suit says. The parties are currently hashing it out in court, while the city’s mayor faces a possible recall.

And Flint isn’t even the only city suffering. Areas in Southwest Chicago and Northwest Indiana are saturated in lead, not only from an industrial legacy, but also from current plants. Indiana Harbor Coke Co. has logged hundreds of violations in the past decade, prompting a group of residents to sue EPA director Scott Pruitt “over his failure to respond to the organization’s petition for denial of a proposed permit for Indiana Harbor Coke Co.” The company has been cited six times by the EPA since 2010 for violations of the Clean Air Act, including exceeding emissions of lead.

The lead contamination is so bad that the EPA has named part of East Chicago a Superfund site. The lead pipes are a problem as well as environmental contamination. East Chicago, Indiana, started replacing lead pipes in September, with the goal of finishing 400 homes by May. The state Department of Environmental Management has distributed filters to residents, which they claim are safe, though some have questions. “Is the water safe even with filters?” Akeesha Daniels asked in July. An entire housing development was demolished due to contamination, and though residents have relocated, the same worries that plague those in Flint linger. What will be the lasting effects of exposure to elevated levels of lead, especially in children?

And even if you’ve pushed the water crisis and the health disaster it’s caused to the back of your mind, keep this in mind: It’s so bad that even Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services Department has responded, albeit insufficiently. According to HealthITNews, they’ve earmarked a meager 15 million “for Michigan’s Genesee County Healthy Start Program to provide health and social services for women, infants, and their families who have had or are at risk for, lead exposure in Flint, Michigan, and the surrounding area.”

HHS secretary Tom Price calls the situation “urgent,” and says that the money, small though it may be, will help “connect affected and at-risk Flint residents to comprehensive health and social services proven to mitigate the effects of lead exposure.” The money will be used to identify children with lead poisoning and help mitigate the developmental effects of the exposure. In addition, it will aid families in dealing with “medical, behavioral, and developmental screening.”

Because while we’re not thinking about Flint, families are still living with the devastating effects of lead poisoning. Take Lee-Anne Walters’ twin 5-year-olds. She tells CNN that one of them is not growing properly, so much so that they no longer look like twins. They can’t remember their colors or their alphabet. They struggle with a kind of memory loss, needing to be taught and re-taught things every day, Meanwhile the family is still using bottled water for literally everything, going through an estimated 10 cases, or 240 bottles, a day. To take a bath, they have to boil 15–18 gallons of water on the stove. This has been the case for two freaking years. Two years of lead-poisoned children, of boiling water to take a bath. Two entire years.

Do them a favor. Do a favor for those 5-year-old twins, for the people killed by Legionnaire’s disease. Do a favor for Melissa Mays, still handing out bottled water and calling herself “poisoned.” Don’t forget Flint.