Do not drink: The water crisis in Flint, Michigan

Jan 22, 2016

One mother’s quest to put a cap on toxic tap water

What do you do when the water’s not safe to drink, bathe in or even swim in?

Lee Anne Walters, a mother of four who lived on the south side of Flint, Michigan, turned to bottled water. That’s right – store-bought bottles and jugs of water used for everything from cooking to brushing teeth.

She took those extreme measures after her kids started getting sick.

After a bout of rashes found on her twin boys, Lee Anne went on a mission to find out what was behind the eruption of spots. Doctor’s visits weren’t helpful, and it wasn’t until Lee Anne noticed that the breakouts were occurring after bath time or swimming in the pool that she made the connection. Eventual water tests revealed extremely high lead levels.

This worried mother went into action and ended up changing everything about how the water crisis in Flint was handled.

How cheap water led to a state of emergency

People in Flint, Michigan, started complaining about their tap water in the summer of 2014, not long after the city stopped pumping its drinking water from Detroit.

It had started pumping water from the Flint River – it was the cheapest option at the time.

But there were problems right off the bat: Residents said the water was brown or reddish; it stank; it tasted weird. On top of all that, four months after the switch, the city detected E. coli in the water.

“How does this happen in the United States?” Flint resident and mother Lee Anne Walters asked. “I mean, you hear about it in Third World countries, but how does this happen, specifically in a state that is surrounded by the Great Lakes?”

It’s a good question.

Michigan Radio reporter Lindsey Smith continues her investigation into Flint’s water crisis by looking back to 2013 for answers.

Michigan forced to face the poisonous problem in Flint

As state officials continued to downplay the lead risk to Flint’s children, last August, research scientists from Virginia Tech got involved. They warned people in the Michigan city to stop drinking the tap water.

Tests showed high levels of lead in that water – and lead is especially harmful to young children. It can lead to conditions such as a lower IQ and attention problems. And once that lead gets into a kid’s blood, the damage is done. You can’t reverse it.

In this story, we’ll hear from the researchers and meet a Flint pediatrician who risked her reputation to change the city’s course.

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