A 26-year-old mother of three, whose name is Treasure, lives on a block of worn down homes, empty lots, and yards of brown grass and mud. On the corner, half of a house stands, black and charred, the upper half completely gone.
It’s a land of broken dreams and lost promises.
Showing the harsh reality, Treasure grabs a clear glass off her kitchen counter and runs the water from her faucet. As it fills, the murky, cloudy water appears. “We have to use bottled water, and it’s very time consuming,” she says.
Without filters, the water looks scary. While still unknown to people whether the water can affect your skin, Treasure says, “I hop in the shower and get out as quickly as possible.” Giving her three-month-old a bath is a task in and of itself. Not wanting to throw a whole 24 pack of bottled water, now a priceless commodity, into her son’s infant bathtub, she boils water, lets it cool and then submerges her son.
He’s had a rash on his neck that she thinks is from the water. But what is she supposed to do? It’s hard to bathe with bottles.
In the heart of Flint, residential homes like the ones on Treasure’s street are dilapidated, run down, burned, and abandoned. However, with no other financial options, and nowhere to go, citizens eke out a living in the only home they’ve ever known. Some chose to stay because their property is worth nothing now – a $76,000 house is now worth $12,000. That is a great loss that most are not willing to accept. Treasure moved back to Flint, her hometown, from Detroit, to be closer to her children, but now her mother has taken them out of state. Again, because of the water.
Families continue to struggle just bathing their children as the water in Flint is still not safe to use. The homes in a local residential neighborhood have been crumbling for years with no attempt to restore them. Like the fall of Rome, once the community tragedy begins, it only gets worse.
At her kitchen table, Treasure braids her niece’s hair, contemplating her next move. “I have three children, two of them I’ve already sent to live with their grandparents,” Treasure says. She’s worried how the water will affect them.
“My three-month-old, who still stays with me, got a rash on the back of his neck after I gave him a bath,” she reveals. Treasure debated whether to bring him to the hospital but decided against it. Rashes have become such a norm that people have became accustomed to it. She’s never gotten her children’s lead levels checked, and when it comes to herself, “I’m actually afraid to find out.”
Treasure works for the Water Distribution Center in Flint; she was given plenty of free filters for the faucets throughout her home. On the kitchen table, lay three unopened filters. “They don’t work,” Treasure says. “I don’t trust them, so I don’t use them.” The fact that the State of Michigan does provide free filters to all of its residents is a step in the right direction.
However, for people like Treasure, who don’t trust these filters, they have to buy bottled water or call a hotline to get on a list for water to be delivered to their house, free of charge. This program, the 211 program, started when the water crisis first hit, and it’s still ongoing. If people don’t want to wait for their bottled water, people drive or, in Treasure’s case, take the bus to their local grocer. “If you tell the bus driver you’re going to the store to buy water, he won’t make you pay the bus fare.”
The nightmare in Flint began when Buick City pulled its roots from Flint and moved to another state, leaving the town of Flint in an uproar and in a position of no return. Since then, the city has slowly fallen apart; blocks of boarded up houses, roofs collapsing in, shattered windows, rusty pipes and gutters, chipped paint and siding, fallen balconies, and yards of dirt and mud.
After Buick City abandoned them, the people of Flint thought it couldn’t get much worse – until the water crisis hit. Once Flint decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the city felt major repercussions and still will for years to come.
However, Flint isn’t the only city in the U.S. that’s facing water problems. The City of Milwaukee has over 70,000 residential home owners currently threatened by the lead levels in their tap water.
Throughout Flint’s water crisis, multiple Community Outreach Programs were in place. Many would continuously try to inform the residents of the sources of lead, and how people can minimize the amount they’re taking in, as well as the effects lead can do to a body.
Treasure was unaware of an event that took place within a mile from her home, entitled “See for yourself: Know what’s in your water”. If Treasure had known about this educational meeting, and had she attended, she would have learned that boiling water for her son’s bath actually increased the amount of lead in the water, therefore increasing the chances of devastating consequences to her child.
She would have also learned that eating a diet of green leafy vegetables can stave off the lead from leaching out of people’s bones into their blood streams; however, the closest grocery store to her home is a tumbling down ruin complete with the smudged “fresh produce” sign.
When Flint switched its water source, the city tried treating the water with Chlorine and a chemical known as HTTP. This chemical compound ended up causing rashes, itchy skin and scalp, as well as hair loss.
In 1990, the American Water Works Association estimated that the U.S. had about 3.3 million lead main lines and 6.4 million lead lateral lines (pipes connecting the main line to the home).
Judy Karpinsky works at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Infectious Disease department; she says, “if kids are sick now, they’re going to have cognitive problems in the future.” She’s witnessed everything lead can do to a person: she’s seen fatigue, headaches, internal bleeding, open sores, and seizures. Karpinsky added, “It can cause irreversible brain damage in children under the age of six, and pregnant women have an increased risk of miscarriage.” Also, according to online sources, Medlineplus and Webmd, lead can also cause hearing loss, kidney damage, aggression, and memory loss.
Treasure is well aware of what lead can do as well. “My cousin’s girlfriend is in a coma because of lead poisoning,” she says. “Her organs stopped functioning and her brain cells were dying.”
Treasure plans to move to Indiana within a year; but will it be too late by then? Lead sticks around in your body and becomes incorporated into the blood stream. Without people going to the hospital to get their blood tested, there is no way anyone would know they are in danger before it’s too late.
After a federal judge approved a deal for pipe replacement in Flint, Michigan will spend $87 million to replace lead and galvanized-steel water lines to at least 18,000 homes. After realizing what this crisis did to the city, Flint has finally scrounged up the funds to replace both the main and lateral lines.
Several factors cause these lead spikes during pipe replacement, including physical shaking of the pipes during replacement work, which can knock off the lead inside, and after partial replacements due to a chemical phenomenon called galvanic corrosion. Therefore, anytime that the main line that supplies the water is being replaced, then lateral lines that run under the yard and home should be replaced as well.
Flint residents won’t have to pay for the replacement of pipes since it was a disaster created by infrastructure consequence. (Milwaukee is under debate on how to cost-effectively swap out the laterals when any main line is replaced. Currently, home owners are responsible for the costs of anything that is done on their property, like removing trees, new sidewalk squares, and replacement pipe work.)
In Flint, the water crisis hit hard, and it hit fast. As Karpinsky related, “preventing a future problem with strong discourse now can save other cities from the health dangers and personal loss we’ve endured.”
Meanwhile, Treasure and her family are living as if they were pioneers in the 1800s in America, struggling to find clean water, boiling it for baths and regular use.