Annette Williams is careful to hold her granddaughter Sharell’s head at bath time, to keep the two-year-old from taking a gulp of toxic water. Though most people no longer drink what flows through Flint’s corroded pipes, many families have little choice but to bathe in it.
Sharell has been sick for months – ear infections, skin rashes and coughs. Williams cooks all her meals using bottled water, and has taught the eldest of her three grandchildren, six-year-old Promise, to wash her sister’s face with a flannel. But total isolation is near impossible. Sharell has developed a habit of sucking on her wet towel when no one is looking.
Williams, 48, is terrified of what might happen because the family bathes in the water. Inadequately treated water has coursed into Flint homes at least since April 2014, bringing toxins and poisonous lead that leached off the city’s aging pipes. There are no safe levels of lead exposure: even low levels can cause lifelong developmental damage to young children.
“I know it’s wrong to do it. We shouldn’t be bathing in it, but what else can we do?” Williams said.
On Monday, all three children will head to hospital for blood tests for toxins . All of Flint’s 8,657 children under the age of six should be considered exposed, according to a recent citywide public health directive.
Since the city’s emergency managers decided to draw Flint’s water from the highly corrosive local river, this small city of 100,000 people – just 70 miles from Michigan’s great lakes, the world’s largest freshwater source – has suffered alone, let down by local, state and federal officials and almost entirely ignored by the rest of America.
Williams can see the river from her living room, in the city’s impoverished north-east. She used to fish for dinner on its banks, but now she can’t bear to look at it.
“It’s all just poison now,” she said.
Life has changed immeasurably in the last two years. Residents live in a state of indignity, fear and paranoia. Some refuse to shower, others eat only from paper plates, and many suffer rashes and hair loss. Adding insult to injury, the city’s water bills are among the highest in the US.
Like 41% of Flint residents, Williams has endured this crisis in poverty; like 56% of residents, she is black. She has no income and hitches rides three days a week to spend precious food stamps on the 70 litres of bottled water that her family needs. Although things have got a little easier since national guard troops rolled into town two weeks ago, supply drops have yet to reach her home. Williams itched her arms. She “ashes” everyday after showering. She wondered whom to blame.
“I feel the governor let us down,” she said. “We never really knew what was going on.”
Rick Snyder, a Republican who ascended to the governor’s office in 2010 without ever serving in public office, has fought off calls for his resignation and criticism about his delayed response to the crisis. It was Snyder’s administration that placed the city under emergency management in 2011, a decision that wrested control from the city council and imposed cost-cutting – which in turn led the city to the filthy river for water. For 18 months the administration ignored signs that water was contaminated , before finally rerouting supplies last October.
Melissa Mays first noticed something was wrong when yellow water spurted through her taps, two months after the switch. It stank. It made her hair fall out. But still, she, her husband and their three boys drank from the taps when the city assured them nothing was wrong.
In the winter of 2014, her son Christian, then 11 years old, fell from his bike and shattered his wrists, which had become brittle. Mays felt her bones ache too – a sure sign of lead poisoning. She noticed the city had quietly advised residents to boil the water before consuming it, and that a General Motors plant had redirected its water after engine parts started rusting.
All her family later tested positive for heavy metal poisoning. Perversely, Mays feels some of the guilt herself.
“It comes when Christian wakes up every night and he’s crying, and there’s nothing I can do. I know that somebody else did this, but it was my job to protect him. I didn’t,” she said. “We’re just seeing the early signs of it. It takes up to five years to see the full effects of lead poisoning.”
Her days are dictated by the amount of bottled water she keeps in the house. She washes all the food with it, boils her kettle with it. She instructs her boys to shower sitting down, by pouring warm cups of water quickly over their bodies. The sight of steam from the bathroom makes her jump – she worries it could carry the poison into her body through pores.
Mays was at the state capitol on Tuesday, when a humbled Snyder apologised to residents. He blamed state environment officials, later suspending two employees.
She was far from convinced. “If he was sorry, he’d have come and talked to the citizens,” Mays said. “And we’d have shovels in the ground digging those pipes up.”
A cache of files obtained by the Guardian through a public records request shows several red flags that should have tipped off officials about the water catastrophe.
In February 2015, just weeks after the University of Michigan-Flint reported elevated lead levels on campus , Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters brought the high lead levels in her household’s water to officials’ attention. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan’s department of environmental quality (MDEQ) discussed Walters’ lead results in an email later that month.
With the subject line “HIGH LEAD: FLINT Water testing Results”, the EPA’s Jennifer Crooks wrote to local officials that she had been discussing Walters’ “water situation” for several weeks. Crooks was stunned by the results: 104 parts per billion of lead. The EPA’s regulatory limit is 15 parts per billion.
“WOW!!! Did he find the LEAD!” Crooks wrote, adding: “She has 2 children under the age of 3 … Big worries here.”
But state environmental officials felt it was an isolated case. They assuaged the fears of an EPA expert, Miguel Del Toral, by saying the city used corrosion controls to prevent the river from leaching contaminants off the water pipes. Del Toral later confirmed that wasn’t the case in a 25 April email, writing that the “whole town may have much higher lead levels” than state officials believed.
The lack of corrosion control in Flint, he later wrote, was a “major concern from a public health standpoint”.
It would not be until October 2015, with lead contamination levels averaging 11 parts per billion, when government officials conceded the situation in Flint was a “public safety issue”.
At a makeshift bottled water collection point, run by a county politician in the city’s north side, a line of cars stretched around the block on Friday. Like refugees from their city, volunteers stuffed cars full of crates. At the eight distribution points manned by the national guard, residents were required to bring identification and could, as of Saturday, collect only one crate per day. The Guardian witnessed several people turned away by troops.
Eric Davis, an unemployed labourer on the city’s north side, stopped drinking the tap water just two months ago. He continues to shower in it and has rashes on his eyelids. The 53-year-old sat in his living room clutching a Red Cross-delivered crate of water, and pointed to the dry skin and bloody scratches on his knees and arms.
“My skin ain’t never been like this,” he said. “My body feels contaminated. It feels like they trying to kill us out here.”
His flatmate, 58-year-old Jeffrey Moore, has refused to shower for two weeks. Instead, he boils water and wipes it over his body. “We’re alone out here,” he said.
A few blocks away, Randy Huyck, his wife and six children shared the feeling of isolation. Their two-storey house, with leaking pipes and rancid mold, was deemed uninhabitable by the city, and the family faces eviction. Abandoned or burned houses line their street, evidence of the city’s declining population and economic collapse.
Huyck continues to bathe and cook with the water.
“I can’t afford to buy water,” he said. “With six kids and no money coming in, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
Until a few weeks ago, with a Michigan primary looming in March, Flint’s water crisis was barely acknowledged on the US presidential campaign trail or in the national media. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton called the delayed response by Michigan officials “unconscionable”, and Bernie Sanders has repeatedly called for Snyder to resign . On Sunday, Jeb Bush praised Synder “ for stepping up right now ”. His rivals in the chaotic Republican race have kept silent.
On Thursday, Barack Obama announced $80m in aid for the people of Flint. “Our children should not have to be worried about the water that they’re drinking in American cities,” he said. “That’s not something that we should accept.”
But residents here fear the money will never reach them, and are angered that Obama chose not to visit the city during a trip to Detroit this week.
Related: How Flint traded safe drinking water for cost-cutting plan that didn't work
At the Masonic temple in downtown Flint on Saturday, hundreds of residents arrived to test their bodies for lead. The testing kits, paid for not by the government but by a local lawyer, ran out within an hour.
Ardis Porter, 26, and her five-year-old son, Grant, got here early enough to see a nurse. They only stopped using tap water to brush their teeth two weeks ago. Grant, whose hair started falling out in November, cried as the needle pierced his skin. Ardis worries her unborn child may also have been exposed.
“They should be testing everybody because they’ve exposed us all to this,” said Ardis Porter. “It wouldn’t be handled like this in other areas. People don’t care about the poor.”
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