Last June, after taking her daughter to the doctor to get treatment for a mysterious pain in her hip, Carrie Webber was called into a very small room. The doctor's first question was, "What have you done to her?" The staff at the clinic assumed that Webber had poisoned her child—although MRIs and scans showed that her daughter was fine, new tests were showing that she had drastically elevated levels of lead. This sort of result was only comparable to that of someone living in a war-torn country. Webber and her family live in Flint, Michigan.
"Two weeks before Christmas, we found out she has liver enzyme issues as well. She just turned 16 on January 24. So she's not even 16, and her liver is not right," said Webber. Later, I asked how her daughter is handling everything. "I guess as well as she can," she responded. "I mean, she has no idea this is her reproduction—this is everything. Everything. It's been a nightmare."
Last August, Webber's husband lost a third of his vision in his right eye due to a stroke from uncontrolled blood pressure caused by lead poisoning. After exposure, his blood pressure was 280 over 190; now it's dropped to 175 over 115, which is still insanely high. In addition, the family's dog is dying because of lead; her liver enzyme level was 300 just five months ago—that of a very young dog—and now she's in the final stages of liver failure, at an enzyme level of 1283.
She's not even 16, and her liver is not right.
As of now, two impending class-action lawsuits have been filed against Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), alleging both knowingly poisoned Flint residents with toxic water from the Flint River. According to Flint's former Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, Flint had to switch its water supply from the Detroit system because Detroit's Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) had upped its prices, making it too expensive for Flint. DWSD, however, came back with proof that they'd offered a deal that would have saved Flint $800 million over 30 years.
It is still unclear why exactly the switch to the Flint River system took place, and subpoenas were served to Snyder and MDEQ on January 25 regarding anyone's involvement in this crisis. While it's unknown exactly how many people have been directly poisoned, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who has been leading the effort to expose this crisis, guesses that around 8,000 kids under the ages of six could have lead poisoning. x
After President Obama declared a state of emergency on January 16, and following a surge of national publicity, people all over the country began donating bottled water to Flint residents. Even though Flint switched back to Detroit water in October of 2015, their pipes are now so corroded that bottled water is still a necessity.
Tiana Lankford, former Flint resident and mother, has three daughters aged thirteen, two, and one. Her one-year-old has elevated levels of lead. On December 18, the family relocated to Flint Township, a suburb of Flint. Even though they're out of the city, Lankford says her family still won't drink from the tap. There are rumors of some people in Flint Township receiving Flint's water.
We don't know when they're going to stop helping, and we don't know when they're going to start relieving this mess.
"Yeah, we've got so much bottled water it almost looks like we're a warehouse around here. You try to get as much as you can because you don't know when they're gonna stop bringing it," said Tiana Lankford, former Flint resident and mother of three. "That's the thing—we don't know when they're going to stop helping, and we don't know when they're going to start relieving this mess."
On Saturday, I spoke with five members of the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, a Muslim-based organization invested in young people most affected by injustice, which is based in Flint. Leon El-Alamin, an activist and Flint resident, discussed how the crisis is affecting him on a personal level: He's broken out in bumps, rashes, scales, and his son's hair has been falling out in different spots. Activists agree that they city will be in trouble as soon as the media leaves; rationing and donating bottled water or filters are only temporary fixes, El-Alamin said. Residents need the lead lines responsible for the contaminated water taken out immediately—they need an infrastructure change, and not another water source.
"We need that bill to pass and we need the water pipes to be changed. The concern of the citizens and residents of Flint is that eventually the cameras are going to go away. The media is going to go away, and then the people are going to be left with the same infrastructure," said Janan Jondy, of the Sylvester Broome Center-Empowerment Village. Michigan Senate Democrats have proposed a bill to replace these bad pipes, but Republicans, who control much of Congress, wonder if it makes sense to give this much federal money to a "local" or state-specific problem.
The media is going to go away, and then the people are going to be left with the same infrastructure.
The question remains: how could no one in the Government have known about this? And are they continuing to neglect the people of Flint through conflicting answers and empty solutions? Free water filters are still being handed out, but Brita and household filters aren't necessarily made to completely take out harsh metals. On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that over two dozen water samples had lead levels that were far too high to be treated by these household filters. Last year, officials told residents if they run their water for longer—about three minutes—it'll help by pre-flushing the pipes. Webber told me that the line into their house was replaced 13 years ago. She's had scientists from Wayne State University come out to test the water a few times. On December 5, 2015 results jumped to 128 parts per billion. Wayne State said the more they ran the water, the more dangerous it became.
"I don't trust much of anything that is being said. It's a bunch of finger-pointing, so right now it's real hard to trust what state officials say," said Chia Morgan, a social worker and lifelong resident of Flint. "As far as local officials, we were under state takeover when all of this happened, so it all boils back to the state." Morgan's three-year-old daughter tested negative for lead a few months ago. She's still waiting for results from a follow-up to that test.
By "state takeover," Morgan is referring to Emergency Financial Management—something Michiganders voted against, which was still implemented by Gov. Snyder. It's a state-specific law that allows for Governor appointed officials to essentially "take over" local governments or public institutions, like the city of Flint or Detroit Public Schools, and overshadow all locals officials' decisions in order to solve their financial issues. Many critics argue that EFMs have proven to do more harm than good. In Chris Lewis's May 2013 Atlantic article, Does Michigan's Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens?, he asks a pointed question: "If population loss and a depleted tax base can prompt emergency management, does that mean local government is a luxury poor people can't afford?"
It's a minority community, it's a poor community, and voices were not being heard.
Environmental racism has also been tied to the carelessness behind this crisis. "It's a minority community, it's a poor community, and voices were not being heard. And that's a part of this problem," said Flint's mayor, Karen Weaver.
The more I researched this level of lead poisoning, the more I kept being brought back to the recent rise in birth defects in Iraq, which are mainly caused by similarly high levels of lead and other metals from bombings by the U.S., or by burn pits that were never cleaned up during the occupation. I spoke with environmental toxicologist Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, who is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has worked extensively with people at Fallujah General Hospital and Basra Maternity Hospital, and who recently won the Rachel Carson Prize. She told me over the phone that she had woken up earlier that day, trying to conceptualize the connection between Flint and Iraq, and then she opened her email and there was this message from me.
"There are many sources of environmental pollution in Iraq, including the burn pit exhaust, including the explosion of over five thousand chemical warheads. But what it boils down to is that very young and pregnant women have been being exposed to these highly toxic compounds coming from air, water, soil, food and that could very well be argued as the cause of this mass epidemic of birth defects in Iraq," said Savabieasfahani. "And the leading metal that does this is lead. It's very similar to what we see in Flint. The high level of extremely toxic lead in children of Fallujah resembles very much the same amount of lead poisoning in the children of Flint."
Lead is directly tied to weapons manufacturing, noted Savabieasfahani, and it has been for years. In some ways, it's almost as if we've quietly been bombing the people of Flint for over a year. She went on to explain how lead is a highly toxic compound that affects many systems in the body. Lead exposure can cause changes to DNA methylation patterns that might affect several generations, meaning that this exposure to lead through drinking water can cause diminished intelligence and other neurobehavioral disorders—not only in a child or pregnant woman who has elevated levels of lead, but in their future children and grandchildren.
Having no regard for life of the most vulnerable people is really, really disturbing.
"I think the connection, the way I see it, is callous and racist attitudes towards those who have no voice. I really see that. And having no regard for life of the most vulnerable people is really, really disturbing," Savabieasfahani said. "As a society, we need to be thinking about ways that we can legally force those who pollute our environment, which ultimately pollutes our bodies—we should be able to legally hold them responsible and force them to clean up what they have left behind."
For the residents of Flint, the lack of accountability for those who caused the crisis will cast a long shadow over their future. Although some Flint residents have considered suing the state for some sort of financial retribution, Lankford insists money is beside the point. "I don't know how some other people feel, but the last thing I care about is some money. I want my daughter to be at 100 percent functioning," she said, reflecting on her one-year-old's elevated lead levels. "I'm just sitting here thinking about how smart she is and the fact that something could be threatening that development."
"There is absolutely no reason why a city in the state of Michigan, with all of these Great Lakes, should be going through something at a magnitude like this," she added. "That is why it's making us feel like it had to be on purpose."