Sunday, January 17, 2016

Flint Water Crisis: Residents Fear Impact, Plan to Move
Flint two-year old impacted by water poisoning.
Elisha Anderson, Detroit Free Press 12 a.m. EST
January 17, 2016

Ariana Hawk heated a bowl of distilled water in the microwave, dipped a washcloth in it and wiped her 2-year-old son’s itchy, irritated skin.

She said she has been cleaning Sincere Smith’s body this way — or with wet wipes — since last summer, because the boy’s doctor doesn’t want him bathing in the tap water at their Flint home.

"I can’t afford to go buy 20 gallons of water just to bathe him one time,” said Hawk, a 25-year-old single mother of three who attends Mott Community College and is pregnant.

Sincere has rough patches of skin on his legs, arms and face, she explained, adding that his skin condition started with a rash on his stomach after Flint switched it water-supply source from Lake Huron to the more polluted and corrosive Flint River in April 2014 while under control of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Hawk blames the water for her middle child’s suffering and plans to sue.

"We get treated like … we don’t matter,” she said. “That’s how it’s been feeling.”

Residents across Flint — some of whom stopped using the water immediately after the cost-saving change because of its smell, color, taste and source and others who continued to drink and cook with it — echo her frustration.

People, pets, even plants have been affected by the poisonous, lead-contaminated water, they said.

Community members feel betrayed, worried, angry, sad and stressed and are bracing for what will happen next in Flint, a city with 99,000 residents, 40% of whom live in poverty.

The city has seen a spike in the levels of lead in children's blood. Lead poisoning, experts say, affects IQs and has lifelong impacts, including learning disabilities, speech and language problems and an increased risk for behavioral issues.

“This is a population-wide exposure,” said Hurley Children's Hospital pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

Kids absorb lead more easily and have been exposed to lead if they drank Flint water since April 2014, health officials said.

“I love my kids,” said Pamela Battle. “I want them to grow up like I grew up ... wasn’t no worries about no water.”

Battle, whose seven children range in age from 1 to 16, said she got a water filter Monday. Before that, she was using water from her faucet to cook, make Kool-Aid and put it in bottles for her two youngest children.

“We were drinking it regularly,” said Battle, 36. “The whole family. Everyone here.”

The water in her previous home was discolored and tasted terrible, she said, but when she moved to her house on Chambers in December 2014, the water came out of the faucet clear and tasted fine. She said she didn’t realize there was an issue.

At the urging of her mother, Battle went to Freeman Elementary School on Tuesday with some of her kids to get their blood checked for lead. The school hosted an event where she learned about lead poisoning and its effects on children.

“I’m really concerned now,” she said.

Battle said she has no choice but to stay in Flint with her children and live with the water crisis. Others have had enough and plan to leave.

Kerry Wheeler, 45, said she, her 11-year-old daughter and their dog are moving to Taylor to escape the water situation.

Shortly after she moved into her Flint apartment on Alvord  Avenue last fall, her active dog became lethargic, wouldn’t eat and started vomiting. Wheeler took the 10-year-old boxer named Beast to the veterinarian and was told to give him bottled water.

“Once I switched him to bottled water, he perked right back up after a couple days,” she said.

Water in her home has varied from clear or cloudy to brown or yellow. At times, it has been so discolored, she refused to let her daughter bathe in it, opting for wipes instead, she said.

“Nobody should have to be living like this,” Wheeler said.

Band-Aids on a big problem

Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency Jan. 5 and acknowledged that actions taken by the state have not been good enough at a news conference Monday, saying “more work needs to be done with more urgency.”

State efforts were ramped up this week to get free bottled water, filters, replacement cartridges and water testing kits in the hands of Flint residents. Members of the Michigan National Guard have been deployed to Flint, and Snyder requested federal help for the water crisis.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint and ordered federal aid to help.

Throughout last week, people lined up to pick up free water and filters at fire stations,  and more free supplies have been passed out door-to-door by Michigan State Police troopers, volunteers and others.

“It’s that kind of door-to-door contact that’s important right now, so people know that we’re committed to their health and their safety,” Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Friday.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said Thursday night that the city has made progress but needs more people to help with the efforts.

“We’re starting to get what we need … but these are Band-Aids, and we need the Band-Aids because as long as we can’t drink the water, we have to have bottled water. We have to have filters,” Weaver said.

The state helped the city move its source of water back to Lake Huron water supplied by Detroit in October, but concerns about contamination remain because the Flint River water damaged pipes and other infrastructure. Dan Wyant, the former head of the state Department of Environmental Quality resigned last month. The agency failed to require the addition of anticorrosive chemicals to the water.

Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the state’s role in the water crisis, but many say he still hasn’t done enough.

“That apology ain’t going to help these kids,” said Hawk, who said she doesn’t know what her children may face because of their exposure to lead. “That apology’s not going to help the families that's suffering.”

Weaver said the ultimate solution is to fix the infrastructure and provide long-term help for all of the people impacted in the city where public trust has been shattered.

“We didn’t deserve to be in this position, in this situation," she said. “And what happened here in Flint should never happen to any community.”

It's 'not fair'

With so many in need of clean water, churches and organizations have turned into water stations, taking donations from people across metro Detroit and the country and distributing bottled water.

Carl Hunter, dressed in a winter coat, gloves and hat, trekked through the bitter cold and snow with a case of water on his head after leaving the North End Soup Kitchen, where water was given away, on Wednesday.

“The water crisis is bad,” the 48-year-old Flint man said, walking to his home about a mile away with 28 bottles of water.

Inside the soup kitchen, person after person grabbed a case. Residents slogged to the bus stop with the water, hopped on bikes with it, loaded it into cars or walked home with it.

“I think everybody in Flint is scared,” said Gloria Waite, a secretary there who said she is thankful her water comes from a well.

She pointed out people from the U.S. go to other countries to dig wells for people without water, and said people here shouldn’t have to worry.

At First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, members packaged water bottles in plastic bags and loaded cases into cars this week. The church bought some of the water, and some of it was donated.

On Monday, Members of Second New Hope Baptist Church in Royal Oak Township dropped off a load of water in a U-Haul. They worked with several churches in metro Detroit to purchase the water for Flint residents.

Doris Walker, 55, picked up a case for herself and took two more cases for her mother, 87-year-old mother Eular  Walker, and her mother’s 98-year-old neighbor, Addie Hart.

“I’m not able to get out,” Walker explained as she sat on her couch.

She is on a fixed income and said she has been buying water at the same time she has been paying high water rates for water she couldn’t drink, calling it “not fair.”

Catrina Tillman is married to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Ezra Tillman Jr., and said there is outrage in Flint. She pointed out the irony that Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, yet people in Flint have lead in their water.

“It’s kind of like you feel like you’re the black sheep in the family,” she said. “In this case, you feel like you’re the black sheep in the country.”

Impact won't show for years

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommends that all Flint children younger than 6 get the blood-lead level test, which requires a prick of the finger.

“Blood-lead level testing is an important part of our efforts to identify people who have been harmed by drinking water containing lead,” department spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said in an e-mail. The department "recognizes that the full community of Flint must be the focus of the public response."

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, whose research showed a dangerous spike in children's blood-lead levels, cautioned that blood tests for lead can provide false reassurances for families. That’s because lead stays in the blood a short amount time  — the half-life is about a month  — so the tests reflect only recent exposure.

“It’s not going to show past exposure," Hanna-Attisha said.

She said there is a lag period between lead exposure and symptoms, which can appear three to five years down the road.

People need to go to their regular doctor for a long-term follow up, she advised. Pediatricians check children's development, and the sooner they find a problem, the sooner the child can get early intervention.

Hanna-Attisha has made recommendations of what can be done to limit the impacts of lead poisoning in children, including better nutrition, health care and early education initiatives.

Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab said the water crisis is going to impact a large number of the district's students and the impact is yet to be seen.

He said there are about 5,500 kids in the district and he wants to ensure all kids graduate career- or college-ready.

“How do we ensure that all kids meet that goal when you have such a crisis?” Tawwab said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and a task force appointed by Snyder are investigating the lead contamination of Flint's water.

The state also is investigating outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area resulting in 10 deaths, but officials said they're still looking for the cause.

Bottled water the norm now

Paul Lewis, 65, switched his family to bottled water more than a year ago, but continued to use tap water for his plants.

The plants went from being green to looking frumpy. Then they turned brown and died, never responding to the plant food he gave them to try and spruce them up.

“After the water fiasco, I just realized it was the water that I was putting on them,” he concluded.

The retired truck driver and his family, including a wife, son, daughter and three grandchildren, use bottled water for everything except bathing. The water costs about $40 every two weeks.

As he loaded up 10 cases of water during a trip to Walmart, a man at the store said, "You can sure tell when people live in Flint."

Contact Elisha Anderson: or 313-222-5144. Follow on Twitter: @elishaanderson

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