FLINT, Mich — Jennifer Mason was running a bath for her toddler son, Oliver, when her eyes began to sting. The tub smelled like an over-chlorinated swimming pool.
It was just a couple of days after the city of Flint switched from importing its water from Detroit to using the nearby Flint River for its water source to save money in April of 2014. “We could immediately tell the water quality was different,” Mason, a high school English teacher, said. Some days the tap water smelled earthy, like a lake. The next day it would give off a burning chemical odor. Another time it reeked of rotten eggs.
Local and state officials kept insisting the water was safe, ignoring complaints from residents that it smelled and tasted bad and in some cases looked red or brown. Despite these official assurances, Mason and her husband, Tim, bought filters for the bathtub, shower and kitchen tap. They began drinking only bottled or filtered water, and made sure their kids, 2-year-old Penelope and 4-year-old Oliver, never tasted a drop of the Flint River.
Their caution turned out to be prescient. The water was rapidly corroding the city’s pipes, and last summer, independentresearchers found that lead and iron had leached from the pipes into the water and had begun showing up at elevated levels in local children’s blood. Though state officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, were aware of the lead problems last summer, they were slow to respond, allowing thousands of children to be exposed to more lead for months before declaring a state of emergency Jan. 5.
Filters and bottled water are now being provided to every Flint resident, with the help of the National Guard. But these measures don’t soothe the worried minds of Flint mothers like Mason, who are still concerned about how much lead their children were exposed to before the state admitted the water was dangerous. Lead is most harmful to children under 5 years old and can cause irreversible brain damage in high enough doses.
“I worry about what the water quality was before — was it always safe?” Mason said. “Now I second-guess a lot of my decisions that I made as a parent. I worry about my kids — and when I was pregnant, was I ingesting water that was safe for my babies?”
Jenay Young, a 28-year-old nursing assistant, said she constantly worries her two children could be exposed. Simple family routines like brushing teeth and taking baths have become complicated and expensive as she works to avoid lead exposure for her 1-year-old daughter, Zayda, and 9-year-old son, Darius.
“I am very, very frightened for my kids,” Young, who was born and raised in Flint, said. “Every day I make sure to tell my son when he goes to school, ‘Do not drink the water.’ I always provide him with a bottle of water per day and I tell him, ‘Whenever you need to take a drink of water you just take a drink out of that bottle.’”
Young heats up 10 bottles of water on her stove to give her infant daughter Zayda a bath every other day. (Her bathtub and shower tap are older models than Mason’s and filters do not fit on them.) When Darius takes a shower in the tap water, she instructs him not to breathe in and only gives him five minutes before shooing him out. “That’s what we do to get baths around here,” Young said wearily. The state says it’s safe to bathe children in Flint water, but some medical experts disagree, warning that small children could swallow the water. (There is virtually no risk of lead entering the blood stream through the skin.) But Flint residents have long stopped listening to the state’s assurances of safety.
Making matters even more dire are Flint’s above-average water bills, which both mothers struggle to pay each month. Mason’s is usually around $130, while Young’s bill was more than $220 in December. They’ve paid thousands of dollars over the past year and a half for water they can’t even use, not counting the hundreds of dollars extra to buy bottled water. Mason, meanwhile, wonders whether the corrosive water may be destroying her appliances, and dreads the prospect of that expense. “Even General Motors can’t use the water in their plant,” Mason said, referring to the local plant’s October decision to stop using Flint water because it was corroding car parts. “What’s that doing to my home?”
“The only thing I really do with the water now is wash clothes and flush the toilet,” Young said.
Both Young and Mason have tested their kids for elevated lead levels and found normal levels so far. But lead only stays in the bloodstream for about 40 days, so it’s impossible to know whether a child has been affected earlier.
“I take them to the doctor every few months to try to keep track of their blood levels,” Young said “So far we’re doing good, but it’s going to take a long time to actually see the effects of that.”
“Thankfully my kids have been tested and they’re fine, but it’s unacceptable,” Mason said.
Mason, who moved to Flint 10 years ago for a teaching job and fell in love with its museums and music and bike paths, now worries that she’s settled into a city that could begin to decline and die from this infrastructural tragedy.
“It’s been disheartening because we’ve really laid down roots here, and now we’re worried that we made the wrong choice but that we’ll be stuck,” Mason said. “Because how are you going to sell a house if everyone knows that the water’s poison?”
Some have left. Young’s sister moved to California three months ago over concerns that her asthmatic son was getting sicker because of exposure to the water. Young has thrown herself into protesting, determined to make the city a better place instead of being forced to leave.
Both mothers struggle to explain to their kids why they can’t drink water from the tap.
“I explain to the kids, I tell them the issue that’s going on with the water,” Young said. Little Zayda doesn’t understand, but, “My son, he understands, he goes to every protest with me. I want him to know the exact issue he’s going through and when he [gets] older he’ll be able to explain and tell about this situation — about how he was living for so long without the use of water.”
Mason said she has so far not told her kids because she thinks they’re too young to understand.
“We have first-world problems about worrying where we’re going to get silly things for our kids, not about whether I can get them water that they can drink,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a life up to this point where I haven’t had to worry about this.”