Two Years After Poisoned Water Crisis in US City, Mistrust Remains

29 January, 2018

Two years have passed since government officials in Flint, Michigan declared a state of emergency. The emergency was lead in the city's water supply.

Officials at Michigan Department of Environmental Quality now say the water is safe again. But, many residents remain unsure.

Sincere Smith is 5-years-old. The little boy was on the cover of a 2016 issue of Time Magazine in connection with its story, "The Poisoning of An America City." In photographs, a rash from lead poisoning covers his face and body.

Flint resident Ariana Hawk with her 5 children. Sincere, 4 at the time of this photo, is on the far right.
Flint resident Ariana Hawk with her 5 children. Sincere, 4 at the time of this photo, is on the far right.

"And every time when I get in the shower, I'm going to rush a lot."

His mother Ariana Hawk, says she still uses only bottled water to wash her five children and to make their food.

After the emergency was declared, the city began to get water from Detroit more than 100 kilometers away. This year, Michigan declared Flint's water safe to drink but only if filtered because some lead pipes remain in use.

Ariana Hawk still does not trust the water.

"Governor Snyder say we need to use that filter because our water is safe. Our water is not safe."

Every day after work, she drives to a place in Flint where the city hands out free bottled water to residents.

Most people in Flint say they do not believe the water is safe. Sheryl Thompson is with Flint Department of Health and Human Services.

"Some people don't trust (it) regardless what the scientific data shows. Some people unfortunately still don't trust the water."

Another Flint resident has had her lead water pipes replaced. But she still remains suspicious.

"Still doesn't feel safe to drink it. And I even had my pipes redone but the water is still looking the same."

They may have good reason to be suspicious.

In 2013, Michigan governor Rick Snyder named an emergency manager to run Flint because of the city's financial problems. That manager approved a plan to use the Flint River for drinking water.

However, officials did not order special treatment of the water necessary for its safe use in Flint's old lead pipes. That meant lead from the pipes got into the water that went directly to homes, schools and other places in the town.

Immediately after this plan went into effect Flint residents protested often about the water quality. Government officials told them again and again that the water was safe.

But a year and a half later, the state of Michigan released a warning about lead in the water. The warning said the water was unsafe to use or drink.

Damage from lead poisoning is permanent and can be severe. Lead collects in the body and can affect many of its systems. Lead exposure is most harmful to young children, especially to developing brains and nervous systems. Children who suffer from lead poisoning experience reduced learning ability as well as problems with behavior and thinking.

Nathaniel De Nicola is a doctor with George Washington University.

"For children, there's not really a way to reverse those effects. But with proper diet, nutrition, counseling, decrease in the exposure ongoing, you can help to not make those adverse effects as impactful."

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) won a legal action against the state of Michigan in connection with the lead crisis. It requires that the state provide nearly $100 million to replace all the lead pipes in Flint. The state also must provide safe water and some special health programs for affected residents.

Pregnant women and people younger than 21 who drank Flint water can now receive special health care paid for by the government.

Dimple Chaudhary was the NRDC's lead lawyer in the case.

"We're able to get this great agreement -- again recognizing that there is still so much to do in Flint. But this piece of it is a good step forward."

A council member for the city of Flint, Eric Mays, says the state is responsible for the damage done to Flint residents. He adds that the federal government needs to repair and rebuild the systems that deliver services, such as water, to its citizens.

That is a long-term goal. For today, Ariana Hawk and all of Flint's residents continue their daily battle for clean water.

"That's not fair to the citizens. That's not fair to these kids."

I'm Anna Matteo.

Anush Avetisyan with Dima Shakhov reported this story from Flint, Michigan for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

lead n.. a heavy and soft metal that has a gray color

rash n. a group of red spots on the skin that is caused by an illness or a reaction to something

rush v. to move or do something very quickly or in a way that shows you are in a hurry

filter v. to pass (something, such as a gas or liquid) through a filter to remove something unwanted

data n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something

reversev. to cause (something, such as a process) to stop or return to an earlier state

counseling n. advice and support that is given to people to help them deal with problems, make important decisions, etc.

exposure n. the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something

adverse adj. bad or unfavorable : not good

impactful adj. having a forceful impact : producing a marked impression