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After Flint, Michigan, switched its water source in 2014, the water in many homes became smelly and discolored.

Anton Eine/EyeEm/Getty Images

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.3, RH.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: People, Places, and Environments • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

THE BIG READ

U.S. Water Crisis

"Our Water Was Poison"

Five years ago, the water in Flint, Michigan, turned toxic. Today, many residents still can’t drink from their taps. How could this have happened in the United States? And why isn’t it fixed yet?  

As You Read, Think About: How should people respond to a crisis?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Some kids are afraid of spiders or snakes or ghosts. But in Flint, Michigan, children are terrified of tap water. It started in April 2014, when smelly yellow and orange liquid began flowing from the faucets in people’s homes. Some residents developed mysterious health problems: red, scaly rashes and painful stomach cramps. Other people’s hair began to fall out in clumps.

For months, Flint residents complained that the water was poisoning them. And for months, state officials said the water was safe. Until they admitted it wasn’t. 

In the fall of 2015, those officials confirmed people’s worst fears: Flint’s water was contaminated with lead, a highly toxic metal. Exposure to lead can cause serious health problems, including brain damage in young kids. And for a year and a half, Flint residents had been drinking the poisoned water and using it to cook and bathe.

Within months, city, state, and federal officials all declared a state of emergency in Flint. Donations of money and bottled water poured in from around the country. But the damage had been done. Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents—including 8,000 kids under age 6—had been exposed to alarming levels of lead. And 12 people had died from a disease linked to the tainted water. 

Some kids are afraid of spiders or snakes or ghosts. But in Flint, Michigan, children are terrified of tap water. It started in April 2014. That is when smelly yellow and orange liquid began flowing from the faucets in people’s homes. Some residents developed mysterious health problems. They got red, scaly rashes. They had painful stomach cramps. Other people’s hair began to fall out in clumps.

For months, Flint residents complained that the water was poisoning them. And for months, state officials said the water was safe. Until they admitted it was not.

In the fall of 2015, those officials confirmed people’s worst fears. Flint’s water was contaminated with lead. Lead is a highly toxic metal. Exposure to it can cause serious health problems. It can even cause brain damage in young kids. And for a year and a half, Flint residents had been drinking the poisoned water. They had been using it to cook and bathe too.

Within months, city, state, and federal officials all declared a state of emergency in Flint. Donations of money and bottled water poured in from around the country. But the damage had been done. Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents had been exposed to alarming levels of lead. That included 8,000 kids under age 6. And 12 people had died from a disease linked to the tainted water.

For a year and a half, residents of Flint, Michigan, had been drinking poisoned water.

Today, more than five years after the crisis started, Flint’s residents are still being advised not to drink or cook with tap water. Imagine if that were you. What if you couldn’t drink the water from your faucet? What if taking a shower could give you a terrible rash—and you might get sick if you used water from the sink to brush your teeth?

Unsurprisingly, the people of Flint feel ignored—and angry. They’re left wondering: How could their water have been poisoned for so long? Will they ever be able to trust local and state officials? And how can something like this be prevented from happening again?

It is now more than five years after the crisis started. But Flint’s residents are still being advised not to drink or cook with tap water. Imagine if that were you. What if you could not drink the water from your faucet? What if taking a shower could give you a terrible rash? What if you might get sick if you used water from the sink to brush your teeth?

Unsurprisingly, the people of Flint feel ignored—and angry. They are left wondering how their water could have been poisoned for so long. They wonder if they will ever be able to trust local and state officials. And they want to know how something like this can be prevented from happening again.

The Crisis Begins

Flint was once a prosperous Midwestern city. It was one of the biggest manufacturers of cars and auto parts in the United States. But that industrial boom ended in the 1980s, when General Motors, a major car company, closed its factories there. In the decades since, the city has struggled with high unemployment and crime. Today, boarded-up houses, failed stores, and empty lots dot the city. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with the national average of about 12 percent.

Flint’s financial struggles are at the root of the water crisis, some experts say. In April 2014, Michigan state officials tried to save the city millions of dollars a year by changing Flint’s source of water from Lake Huron—one of the five Great Lakes—to the Flint River.

But the river water was polluted. It was full of contaminants that corroded Flint’s aging lead pipes. That released the metal into the water supply. The toxic mix flowed into Flint’s houses and schools. (Scientists say the water should have been treated with chemicals to prevent corrosion—but wasn’t.)

Flint was once a prosperous Midwestern city. It was one of the biggest manufacturers of cars and auto parts in the United States. But that industrial boom ended in the 1980s. That is when General Motors, a major car company, closed its factories there. In the decades since, the city has struggled with high unemployment and crime. Today, boarded-up houses, failed stores, and empty lots dot the city. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. That is much higher than the national average, which is about 12 percent.

Flint’s financial struggles are at the root of the water crisis, some experts say. In April 2014, Michigan state officials tried to save the city millions of dollars a year. They did that by changing where Flint got its water. They switched the source from Lake Huron, one of the five Great Lakes, to the Flint River.

But the river’s water was polluted. It was full of contaminants that corroded Flint’s aging lead pipes. That released the lead into the water supply. The toxic mix flowed into Flint’s houses and schools. (Scientists say the water should have been treated with chemicals to prevent corrosion. But it was not.)

What You Need to Know

©Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/zReportage.com via ZUMA Wire

This corroded pipe leached lead into the water in Flint.

Great Lakes: A chain of five freshwater lakes along the U.S.-Canada border. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario have coastlines along eight states and make up the world’s largest freshwater surface.

Lead: A durable metal long used for water pipes, dating as far back as ancient Rome. However, lead is toxic and can accumulate in the body, so water suppliers in the U.S. and other countries are phasing it out in plumbing work. 

Great Lakes: A chain of five freshwater lakes along the U.S.-Canada border. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario have coastlines along eight states and make up the world’s largest freshwater surface.

Lead: A durable metal long used for water pipes, dating as far back as ancient Rome. However, lead is toxic and can accumulate in the body, so water suppliers in the U.S. and other countries are phasing it out in plumbing work. 

“Our water changed,” says Flint resident Kwame Johnson, now 12. “Sometimes it looked brown.” Adds his mom, Ariana Hawk: “It smelled like rotten eggs.” But since state officials insisted the water was fine, “we just assumed that it had to be safe to drink,” she says. 

Kwame’s little brother, Sincere, then just a baby, developed itchy, painful rashes that mystified doctors. His mother rubbed adult-strength prescription ointment on Sincere’s tiny body, but the rashes didn’t go away. It wasn’t until a year later, when a doctor suggested the family stop using tap water, that Sincere’s rashes started to clear up.

Other community members were having similar health struggles. Flint residents crowded into city meetings armed with plastic bottles filled with their discolored tap water and demanded answers. Some people organized a grassroots effort to have residents collect samples of their tap water for testing. 

Finally, a local health center discovered that the number of kids in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood had nearly doubled between 2013 and 2015. A doctor announced the findings at a news conference in September 2015.

Within days, state officials finally admitted the truth: Flint’s drinking water was toxic.

“Our water changed,” says Flint resident Kwame Johnson, now 12. “Sometimes it looked brown.” Ariana Hawk is his mom. She adds, “It smelled like rotten eggs.” But state officials insisted the water was fine. So “we just assumed that it had to be safe to drink,” she says.


Kwame’s little brother, Sincere, was just a baby at the time. He developed itchy, painful rashes that mystified doctors. His mother rubbed adult-strength prescription ointment on his tiny body. But the rashes did not go away. A year later, a doctor suggested the family stop using tap water. Only then did Sincere’s rashes start to clear up. 

Other community members were having similar health struggles. Flint residents crowded into city meetings. They went armed with plastic bottles filled with their discolored tap water. They demanded answers. Some people organized a grassroots effort to have residents collect samples of their tap water to be tested.

Finally, a local health center made a discovery. The number of kids in Flint with high lead levels in their blood had nearly doubled between 2013 and 2015. A doctor announced the findings at a news conference in September 2015.

Within days, state officials finally admitted the truth: Flint’s drinking water was toxic.

Brittany Greeson

Flint resident Ariana Hawk warms bottled water to give her son Sincere a bath.

Safe Water Needed 

The state switched Flint’s water source back to Lake Huron shortly afterward. But the city’s pipes had already been damaged. Unless they were replaced, lead would continue to leach into the water. In January 2016, the state began delivering free bottled water to residents to use in place of tap water.  

A few months later, workers started replacing the city’s pipes. Michigan and the U.S. government have committed $150 million to pay for the work and other water-related improvement projects in Flint.

As this issue went to press, workers had swapped out about 8,700 corroded pipes, with about 7,000 more to go, city officials said. Flint’s mayor has vowed to finish the project this fall. But there are no guarantees. The process is slow, in part because workers have to determine which pipes are corroded before they can replace them.

The state switched Flint’s water source back to Lake Huron shortly afterward. But the city’s pipes had already been damaged. Unless they were replaced, lead would continue to seep into the water. In January 2016, the state began delivering free bottled water to residents to use in place of tap water.

A few months later, workers started replacing the city’s pipes. Michigan and the U.S. government have committed $150 million to pay for the work and other water-related improvement projects in Flint.

As this issue went to press, workers had swapped out about 8,700 corroded pipes. They have about 7,000 more to go, city officials said. Flint’s mayor has promised to finish the project this fall. But there are no guarantees. The process is slow. The reason, in part, is because workers have to figure out which pipes are corroded before they can replace them.

Flint residents are still being warned not to drink unfiltered tap water.

State officials say the new pipes have already made a difference. In spring 2018, tests showed that most of Flint’s water now falls below the federal limit for lead. After those results were released, the state stopped providing free bottled water. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency continues to warn Flint residents not to drink, cook with, or even brush their teeth with unfiltered tap water until all of the corroded pipes are removed. 

Still desperate for safe water after all these years, many residents wait in line for hours when bottled water donated by businesses or nonprofits becomes available each week. Others buy their own. 

Kwame’s family alone goes through about 240 bottles of water a week. “We’ve been lied to so many times by people we trusted,” says Hawk. “How can we trust their word when they tell us the water is OK to use?”

State officials say the new pipes have already made a difference. In spring 2018, tests showed that most of Flint’s water now falls below the federal limit for lead. After those results were released, the state stopped providing free bottled water. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency continues to warn Flint residents not to drink, cook with, or even brush their teeth with unfiltered tap water until all of the corroded pipes are removed.

Many residents are still desperate for safe water after all these years. They wait in line for hours when bottled water donated by businesses or nonprofits becomes available each week. Others buy their own.

Kwame’s family alone goes through about 240 bottles of water a week. “We’ve been lied to so many times by people we trusted,” says Hawk. “How can we trust their word when they tell us the water is OK to use?”

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency

Fears for Flint’s Kids

Perhaps the scariest part is what’s unknown: how the water crisis will affect residents’ health over time. Research has linked lead exposure in children with mental and developmental delays, emotional disorders, learning impairments, and shortened attention spans. 

In Flint, many parents have reported that their kids aren’t growing properly, or they are acting out in school. Kwame sometimes has trouble remembering and focusing. And Sincere still suffers from bad rashes.  

Last year, the state of Michigan agreed to spend $4 million to test Flint kids who were exposed to lead. The results will help determine which children need extra health care or special education services. A federal lawsuit is pressuring the state to provide those resources for free to any affected kids who need them.

Perhaps the scariest part is that no one knows how the water crisis will affect residents’ health over time. Research has linked lead exposure in children with mental and developmental delays. Exposure is also linked to emotional disorders, learning impairments, and shortened attention spans.

In Flint, many parents have reported that their kids are not growing properly. Others say their kids are acting out in school. Kwame sometimes has trouble remembering and focusing. And Sincere still suffers from bad rashes.

Last year, the state of Michigan agreed to spend $4 million to test Flint kids who were exposed to lead. The results will help determine which children need extra health care or special education services. A federal lawsuit is pressuring the state to provide those resources for free to any affected kids who need them.

©Jim West via ZUMA Wire

Workers remove a corroded pipe in Flint in 2016.

A City Moves Forward

Many Flint residents struggle with feelings of betrayal—because their water was contaminated in the first place and because they still can’t trust their water. Adding to their frustration, criminal charges against local and state officials who allegedly covered up the problem for months were recently dismissed. 

Experts say demographics—Flint’s residents are largely poor and more than half are African American—put the city at higher risk of a water crisis. Places with high populations of poor people and people of color are most likely to experience environmental disasters, says Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan, an expert in environmental justice. The responses to these disasters tend to be slower in such places as well.

Many Flint residents struggle with feelings of betrayal. That is because their water was contaminated in the first place. It is also because they still cannot trust their water. Adding to their frustration, criminal charges against local and state officials who allegedly covered up the problem for months were recently dismissed.

Flint’s residents are largely poor. More than half are African American. Experts say those demographics put the city at higher risk of a water crisis. Places with high populations of poor people and people of color are most likely to experience environmental disasters. That is according to Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan. He is an expert in environmental justice. The responses to these disasters tend to be slower in such places as well.

How YOU Can Help

Send Words of Support 
Write notes of encouragement to children in Flint as part of the Dear Flint Kids Project to show local children support. Mail them to:

Mari Copeny
PO Box 138
Flint, MI, 48501

Help Buy Water  
Organize a coin drive or movie night to raise money for bottled water or school supplies for Flint residents. Submit donations to flintkids.org or to the Flint Water Fund at unitedwaygenesee.org.

Spread the Word  
Share what you have learned about Flint with your friends and family and on social media. Also, call or write to your federal lawmakers and urge them to take more action to help the people of Flint. 

Send Words of Support 
Write notes of encouragement to children in Flint as part of the Dear Flint Kids Project to show local children support. Mail them to:

Mari Copeny
PO Box 138
Flint, MI, 48501

Help Buy Water  
Organize a coin drive or movie night to raise money for bottled water or school supplies for Flint residents. Submit donations to flintkids.org or to the Flint Water Fund at unitedwaygenesee.org.

Spread the Word  
Share what you have learned about Flint with your friends and family and on social media. Also, call or write to your federal lawmakers and urge them to take more action to help the people of Flint. 

“When Flint residents raised concerns about the water’s health impact, the state’s initial reaction was to discount the complaints,” Mohai says. “That is how poor and mostly minority communities have been treated in these situations.” 

Still, he notes, the attention that Flint has received has helped shed light on the issue. That could help policy experts avoid situations like this in the future. “Many people want to do the right thing,” he says. “In that way, I see progress.”

In the meantime, Kwame’s family and other Flint residents haven’t given up hope—or on Flint. His mom remains committed to supporting the community and regularly delivers cases of water to older residents in town. 

“One or two cases of water isn’t a lot,” she says. “But the least I can do is try to help.”

“When Flint residents raised concerns about the water’s health impact, the state’s initial reaction was to discount the complaints,” Mohai says. “That is how poor and mostly minority communities have been treated in these situations.”

Still, he notes, the attention that Flint has received has helped shed light on the issue. That could help policy experts avoid situations like this in the future. “Many people want to do the right thing,” he says. “In that way, I see progress.”

In the meantime, Kwame’s family and other Flint residents have not given up hope. And they have not given up on Flint. His mom remains committed to supporting the community. She regularly delivers cases of water to older residents in town.

“One or two cases of water isn’t a lot,” she says. “But the least I can do is try to help.”

Write About It! How has the water crisis affected Flint residents? How have government officials met and failed to meet residents’ needs? Make sure to include text evidence.

Meet a Changemaker

Mari Copeny, 12, has raised more than half a million dollars for her neighbors in Flint

Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP Images

Mari (above right) passes out bottled water to families in her hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Courtesy Loui Brezzell