Life in Flint: A logistical, financial and health nightmare
FLINT, Michigan — Nearly two years ago, residents here started drinking water from the brown, soupy river that flows through their town. The water smelled bad, tasted bad, and looked bad. Turns out, it was also toxic.
Now the city is in a state of emergency, searching for short-term fixes and long-term answers to a man-made lead crisis. On Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow will host a televised town hall, “American Disaster: Flint Water Crisis,” featuring Flint families, community leaders, politicians, doctors, and scientists. The goal is an early autopsy of the hows and the whys, not to mention the what-nows.
For the past few days, photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier has taken a more documentary approach, focusing on the basic question of what it’s like to live in Flint amid such an extraordinary disaster. This is a 100,000 person city — the cradle of Buick and the United Auto Workers, the former factory floor for General Motors — without drinkable water flowing from its taps.
That’s a logistical, financial and domestic nightmare. Every day the first question for people is the same: Do we have enough water? If not, it’s off to the fire station or the community center, where a mix of state and private funds have paid for daily bottled water drops.
It’s also a health nightmare. Flint residents now use bottled water to drink, cook and bathe, warming it in the microwave and then rubbing themselves down. For the children of Flint, there is no bath time, only wet-towel time.
But currently, there is no good alternative for kids here. Flint’s water has been tainted with lead — a well-known toxin that can do irreversible damage to the brain — for much of last year, if not further back. The Flint River water corroded the city’s pipes, which leached lead and iron into the water, possibly also creating incubators for a deadly explosion of legionella, a waterborne bacteria.
Researchers have connected lead poisoning to IQ loss, behavioral problems, and a cascading list of poor health outcomes, especially in children. There is no “safe” level of lead in the water, experts say.
And the threat to the children of Flint is more than theoretical. In a paper published last November, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, reported that “blood lead levels” — in children younger than 6 — had spiked throughout Flint. In some neighborhoods, the percentage of kids with significant amounts of lead in their systems had doubled and tripled.
State and city officials say they are developing long-term help for these kids, whose symptoms — delayed speech, difficulty learning, troubled motor skills — could lay dormant for years.
And all of this could have been prevented. If the state had added corrosion controls to the water, it would have been drinkable. The preventive effort would have cost about $100 a day, researchers say. Now it may cost as much as $1.5 billion to fix, according to Flint’s mayor.
Officials say they are investigating the source of the problem and the bearer of blame. The governor or members of his administration may even face criminal charges, according to the Michigan attorney general. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality has admitted to a “mistake.” Everyone says they driving toward a solution.
In the meantime, Flint residents are living like refugees in their own city — with no timetable for returning to normal.
Danny Wilcox Frazier is a documentary photographer based in Iowa.