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3 Years Of Hell:  Reflections From A Victim Of The Flint Water Crisis

3 Years Of Hell: Reflections From A Victim Of The Flint Water Crisis

LuLu Brezzell  |  Guest Contributor    

Editor's Note:  This article is part of an initiative to include stories on our blog that connect water quality issues to the everyday lives of real people.  To raise awareness of the 3 year anniversary of the beginning of the Flint Water Crisis, Flint resident LuLu Brezzell describes the roller coaster ride that her family and fellow Flint residents went through once they realized that their water was not safe to drink.  Ms. Brezzell was gracious enough to share her story with our audience, and was not paid to do so.  

Fear

Fear, the feeling that takes over when you are told that your water source that flows into our home was filled with lead and bacteria. The same water we have been using to drink, cook with, and bathe.  Fear, the feeling of knowing that your children may have been exposed to an invisible, tasteless, odorless poison that can cause irreversible damage.  As a parent, there is no greater fear. 

This is the same fear that I'm sure every single member of my community felt.

What Happened?

Three years ago, as part of a cost-cutting measure, a state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to switch Flint's drinking water from Detroit's municipal water to the Flint River.  Flint's water plant hadn’t treated raw water in decades, never mind the fact that it was not equipped to manage industry standard corrosion control measures that would prevent corrosive river water from eating away at Flint's aging infrastructure.

On the day of the water supply switch, the emergency manager, mayor and other council members all gathered at the Flint Water Plant, and ceremoniously toasted each other with glasses of the new tap water.  

Who could have expected that this toast would mark the day that our city lost its access to clean safe water?

Visible Symptoms Hinting At A Much Larger Citywide Problem?

Soon after the switch, my youngest child, who wasn’t even two years old, started to have serious issues with her skin, including persistent rashes that OTC treatments couldn't stop. She was eventually prescribed a steroid ointment that slathered onto her, and wrapped her up like a mummy with plastic wrap. It was horrible, in part because we had no idea what was causing the problem.  

Here's the short answer:  It was the water she was bathing in.

Shortly thereafter, we had the US CDC, EPA, MDEQ and other agencies all in our home, taking water samples and asking questions in an attempt to diagnose what was causing these issues.  We weren't alone in this, it was happening all over our City.  It was like watching a horror movie, where you have no idea what was going to happen next.

Our city was in the midst of a widespread water contamination emergency.

An Inspiring Call For Help

My other daughter (8 years old at the time) became very concerned with what she saw happening in Flint, and felt like she needed to do something.  Here I am feeling helpless and my child is begging me to let her do something to help.

So help we did!  We participated in protests and rallies to raise awareness of the water crisis. We would go out and find people passing out water and jump in a volunteer with them.  We made videos and took pictures that we could share on social media.  

One day we heard about a bus traveling from Flint to Washington, DC for the congressional hearing for Governor Rick Snyder.  My daughter thought that if we were going to go to Washington, DC... it would probably be worth it to write a letter to (then) President Obama.  About a week before the trip, she sent the letter, and I was careful to remind her that President Obama was very busy, and that he probably wouldn't be able to read it.  The trip to DC came and went as planned, and a good learning experience.  

But soon after we returned to Flint, we got a call...

From the White House.  

President Obama was touched by her letter and wanted to come to Flint to meet her and to see first hand what was being done for the water crisis.

Little Miss Flint And President Obama

My daughter with President Obama.  Are you serious?

 

Flint In The National Spotlight

When that letter was released so much changed, because The Flint Water Crisis was now in the spotlight.  Up until that point, I had been begging outside groups to come in and do testing (we didn't trust the testing that the city was conducting).  Once the story hit the national news, things changed.  We were getting emails and messages offering us water filtration systems, testing, and other products. It was so hard to keep up with everything. I was overwhelmed but grateful that finally it felt like someone was listening and wanting to help.

Navigating Conflicting Voices In A Storm Of Information

Unfortunately, some people saw the media spotlight and chaos as an opportunity to make a name for themselves, or even worse... profit from the situation.

Like anyone, I wanted answers and was willing to listen to everyone who claimed to have a solution that could fix our problem.  It's easy to look back and say that I should have focused on certain opinions and ignored other voices, but it's important to remember that at the time... it was complete chaos, and even though we were grasping at straws, we were hopeful that the next straw grasped could be the solution we were looking for.    

Looking back, I feel fortunate that while others were making names for themselves, an outsider with no ties to Flint was willing to remain in the shadows while helping me weed through and understand all of the information.  

What Lies Ahead For Flint's Tap Water?

It's been 3 years since Flint made the fateful water supply switch that turned an entire city upside down.

Unfortunately, it's much easier to make a mess than it is to clean it up.  

Our city's pipes are irreparably damaged, and we're learning that it's not as easy as digging them up and replacing them.  Precautions must be taken in the meantime to ensure that no addition exposure occurs as the pipes are swapped out.  It's also important to remind ourselves that replacing the service lines will not do anything to fix any lead-containing solder, valves, or plumbing fixtures inside our homes.  The official recommendation is that we continue to filter our water for lead, but I know that some residents continue to rely on bottled water.

Another problem that has gone largely unpublicized is that the city is having a hard time maintaining disinfectant levels in the water, which means that some areas have noticeably high chlorine levels while other parts of the pipe network have virtually no residual chlorine to keep the water sterile.  

Right now, several city and state officials are under investigation for the alleged roles they played in the Flint water crisis.  

Tap water is something that most of us take for granted, but producing clean water at the municipal level is more complicated than most realize.  Because of what we have gone through, I don’t think I will ever trust tap water ever again.  

What's Changed In Our Home?

In the year since the letter not much has changed regarding how we use water. We still don’t use the tap water at our house for consumption. Showers are limited to 2 minutes because of how sensitive my families skin is to the water, even when filtered. Bottled water is still a very big part of our everyday lives. As much as an inconvenience as it is to constantly open up bottles of water it has almost become second nature.  

On the activism and awareness front, my daughter is still doing her part to raise awareness of water quality issues, and to be a voice in support of quality science.

Little Miss Flint Science March

Mari and her hero, Dr. Hanna-Atisha speak to a crowd of 40K People At The Recent March For Science In Washington, DC

If you'd like to continue following our story, you can do so on Twitter (@LittleMissFlint

Other Articles We Think You'll Enjoy

Largely Unreported:  Lead Contamination Crisis Underway In Flint, Michigan
Pittsburgh's 2016 Citywide Lead Levels Exceed EPA Standards
How To Tell If Your Home's Plumbing Has Lead In It

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Update 1/25/2016 :  We have been contacted by Mr. Savage, he acknowledged his mistake, and pulled down his post. We thank him for this. We are certainly aware of the fraud that follows tragedy (Hydroviv has had donated units stolen by volunteers working for nonprofits in Flint).

Accusation of Fraud:

Yesterday (1/24/2016), Hydroviv was falsely accused by a Rachel Maddow Show Contributor (Chris Savage) of being part of a scam, and his accusation has been shared and retweeted multiple times. Mr. Savage's Twitter handle is @Eclectablog​, and a screenshot of his post, almost immediately after it was posted is shown below:



I don’t know Chris Savage. I've never talked to him, and he apparently did not do any background research on Hydroviv or myself. I have submitted my direct contact information into the "Contact" section of his website to try and clear up any misunderstanding, as well as directly replied to his tweet. No Response.  

Here’s the truth about the partnership between Hydroviv and the “Filters For Flint” Facebook Community:

Origin of Water Filters for Flint partnership:

On January 20, 2016, Hydroviv received a call from a Julia Smith, a woman from Memphis, asking if we would be willing to partner with a “still-to-be-formed” Facebook group that links Flint residents in need with donors who want to help. She told me her story about how she had literally purchased a high-end water filter (not Hydroviv) on Amazon for a complete stranger in Flint, because she saw some heartbreaking photos. Her idea was to create a Facebook Community that brought together people in need with people like her who wanted to help. She found Hydroviv through the #FiltersForFlint hashtag that we have been using on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for some of our other filter donation campaigns. Within 24 hours, she had put together the FB Community, and started linking donors and recipients.

Financial Arrangement:

We agreed that it would be appropriate (both logistically and appearance-wise) for Hydroviv to handle all aspects of money, and that the Facebook Community would serve only to link people in need with people who wanted to help. She did not ask for any kind of “kickback,” nor would I have agreed to any kind of arrangement like that (furthermore, at the $65 price, there is nothing to kick back). In case this woman has not done enough to help people by setting up the forum, she has donated several water filters for Flint through her own program.

Logistics of The Partnership:

The logistics behind the partnership between Hydroviv and the “Filters For Flint” Facebook Community are straightforward: Hydroviv created an item in our store called “Donate A Water Filter To A Resident of Flint, Michigan #FiltersForFlint.”  After a person donates a system through Hydroviv's secure store/checkout, we use UPS to ship the filtration system directly to a resident of Flint that reached out through the Filters For Flint Community. That's it.

​Second Claim: Government's Free Filters Are The End-All Solution

The second claim was that the government is providing filters to Flint residents for free, so there’s no reason to send anything else. This assertion is inconsistent with what we are hearing from people in Flint.

We tip our hat to the people in Flint who are working to distribute bottled water and filters. However, we receive requests every day from individuals and child-focused organizations telling us that they logistically cannot haul enough bottled water, can’t get filters fast enough, or that they don’t trust the products given to them by the same people who ignored the problem for so long. The reality is, the filters that are being distributed by the government will have a much shorter lifetime than expected in Flint, because the lead concentrations from the samples used in the certification tests are lower than the levels being measured in Flint. Once the filtration capacity for lead (not gallons of water) is reached, the filters are worthless.

Regardless of the fear vs. facts, nobody disagrees that people in Flint need to be filtering their water until the measures are in place, and if it lowers their anxiety to receive a DONATION from someone not affiliated with their municipality… so be it.  Companies much larger than Hydroviv are doing the exact same thing, and we encourage people to donate through them if it makes you feel more comfortable than working with Hydroviv. 

The Purpose For This Response is Two-fold:  


1.  To lay out the facts in hopes that the death threats will stop.
2.  To assure any of our customers or donors who read the accusation (or any subsequent retweets) that they have not been scammed.  However, if you feel any uneasiness, Hydroviv will refund your contribution, and I will personally cover your donation, no questions asked.

Respectfully,

Eric Roy

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder

Lead Contamination in Flint, Michigan Drinking Water

Lead Contamination in Flint, Michigan Drinking Water

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder

I wanted to take a make our readers aware of a largely unreported disaster that is underway in Flint, Michigan. The residents of Flint, MI are being poisoned by lead in their tap water because the municipality messed up... big time. In this post, I'll focus on the science behind lead contamination, the facts (as we know them) of what happened in Flint, and touch upon another incident in recent history where a similar thing happened.

​All water has impurities in it. Most impurities are harmless (e.g. dissolved oxygen, minerals), some are harmful (e.g. lead, arsenic, mercury).  

Impurities typically enter tap water in 3 ways:

1.  Some are found in the source water (e.g. naturally occurring minerals)
2.  Some are  deliberately added  as part of the treatment process (e.g. chlorine)
3.  Some are picked up along the way from the treatment facility to the tap. 


Lead is almost never found in source water at dangerous levels, and nobody deliberately adds lead to their water supply, because it's toxic.  Lead can, however, be be introduced to tap water as it flows from the treatment facility to the tap.

How is Flint’s drinking water picking up lead in transit?

It’s pretty straightforward:  Nearly all homes with plumbing installed before the 1986 use lead-containing solder to join copper pipes. Lead can also be found in residential plumbing fixtures  manufactured before 1998.   Additionally, some older homes use lead service line pipes to connect water mains to homes.   Proper water quality testing (e.g. pH, chloride, toxic metals) and corrosion control practices (e.g. monitoring chloride levels, maintaining a slightly alkaline pH, adding corrosion inhibitors) are what keep residents with older plumbing and service connections safe from lead contamination.  This is not unique to Flint.  Unfortunately, it's not always done correctly,  and residents suffer.

In Flint, as well as other places where high lead levels have leached into municipal tap water  (e.g.  Washington, DC in the early 2000’s), monitoring and corrosion control measures failed, which allowed lead to dissolve from pipes/fittings/fixtures and poison the residents.

What changed in Flint to cause the lead contamination problem?

In 2014, Flint stopped buying its tap water from Detroit (which has proper corrosion control measures in place), and began collecting their water from the Flint River as part of a plan to switch to a different water supply.  During the changeover process, the municipality failed to implement effective corrosion control measures, and the corrosive water allowed lead to leach from lead-containing plumbing.  
Because proper water quality monitoring procedures were not in place, the Lead problem was not widely discovered until recently.

​What Now?

Flint has announced that it will resume buying water from Detroit, which gets its raw water from Lake Huron and has proper monitoring and corrosion control measures in place.   This is a great first step, but it's important that Flint keeps monitoring their water for lead, because the pipes can continue to leach lead while the corrosion control measures build up the protective layer on the inside of the pipes.  The length of time this takes will depend on the degree of corrosion, and whether or not Flint's water will have "boosters" of the anti corrosion chemicals.

Until lead levels drop, residents are being urged to use a quality water filtration system that effectively removes lead.  Contrary to some of the information out on the internet... boiling water before use does NOT decrease the amount of lead.
  It is critical that Flint residents use a filter that effectively removes lead, and also changes the cartridges on a regular basis.  I would expect that the filtration capacity (in gallons) for lead would be much lower than the manufacturer claims, because the gallon capacity ratings were determined using water with much lower lead concentrations than what is currently being measured in Flint.  

Even though there is a plan moving forward, this type of incident almost certainly caused harm to some residents Flint, and the areas most affected by it were probably homes with older plumbing.  Even though lead contamination is odorless and tasteless, it has devastating effects on human health.  Since Flint began using the Flint River as a water source, numerous children have tested positive for high levels of lead in blood, and a number of schools have recently shut down water fountains due to high lead levels.   When a similar lead contamination issue occurred in Washington DC between 2001-2004, stillbirths shot up during the affected years (Edwards, 2013).   As was the case in Washington, DC, the full extent of harm likely will not be realized for several years.

*** Update June 2016:  We are getting a lot of questions from Flint residents about what to do now.  The message that we want to communicate to people in Flint is that you now have a world leader in Mark Edwards actively working with the city to help fix the problem.  There is quite literally no person on earth with more credibility than Dr. Edwards on this topic, and nobody with a better track for helping people who have been affected by this sort of disaster.  Please listen to him with open ears.  He will not lie to you.  There are a lot of far less credible people who are looking to elevate their status by saying things that will resonate with residents.  Please do not listen to them.  This problem will take longer to fix than it took to create, but understand that you now have the top expert on earth working on the problem.

Sources:​

M. Edwards. Fetal death and reduced birth rates associated with exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water. Environmental Science & Technology. Published online December 9, 2013. doi: 10.1021/es4034952.

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Tap Water Chlorination:  The Good, The Bad, The Unknown
Fluoride in Municipal Tap Water:  What You Need To Know
​Disinfection Byproducts:  What You Need To Know