Life in Flint; Living with Deadly Water

FLINT, Mich. — Life over the past months has changed dramatically for Alaya Smith and her family, which includes her two-year-old son, Amarus Jones, and her fiancé.

They live in fear of the water.

Consequently, she no longer uses regular water for showers or to wash dishes or to drink or to wash her hands.

“When I get up, I have to make dish water,” said Smith, 22, a home health worker. “I use bottled water for that.”

Everything related to water, the world’s daily sustenance, is different. Instead of water from the faucet, she and her family have been drinking a dozen 16-ounce bottles of water daily, and use another 20 each day for dishwashing, cooking, bathing and brushing their teeth.

And now, because of the water, her son’s future may have been robbed from him.

Smith is experiencing what Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents have been enduring daily for months. Lead contamination in the city’s water system has made daily activities that the rest of the country take for granted hazardous and left residents unsure of what adjustments are neccesaary to their daily lives to keep from becoming ill.

Flint residents are advised to only consume filtered and bottled water for activities like drinking, cooking, and brushing their teeth. Washing their hands and taking a shower is now problematic.

The city’s drinking water became dangerous in April 2014 when the city changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River, which city officials failed to treat with corrosion inhibitors. Consequently, lead from water pipes has contaminated the water.

In October of 2015, the city switched back to Detroit water, but the water is still unsafe.

In January, the city declared a state of emergency, and soon after, President Barack Obama declared Flint a federal emergency.

Just getting water in Flint is a daily concern. Residents can pick up free water from one of the city’s distribution sites or from religious organizations and others who hand out free water.

Smith said she gets the water from friends and family because she does not have transportation to pick up water from the various distribution centers. Smith said she hopes using bottled water for bathing will reduce the rashes and dry spots she and her son have developed over the past year.

“I boil it in pots for the tub,” said. “I know some people who aren’t using them, but I am. Now, I’m so used to not running the faucet.”

Worse, blood tests three months ago, she said, revealed that her son had elevated levels of lead in his body, which cripple a child’s brain development and growth rate. It is most likely the result of exposure from the city’s water, she said. The lead poisoning requires bi-weekly doctor’s visits, she said, and has added to her concerns and fears.

“I’ve been real concerned about brain damage, because he’s really smart,” she said. “I pray a lot.”

Downstairs, Smiths’ homebound neighbor, Jayne Cramer, 56, tackles a leading concern in Flint — showering. Since news of the water contamination broke, many residents have questioned whether the water is safe enough to bathe in.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose work helped to expose the contamination, has advised families that children should only get quick showers in reduced heat to decrease the concentration of lead.

Cramer said she suffers from a number of health issues including stage 4 liver cancer. Her daughter, Tiffany Triplett, 37, a hairstylist who stops in daily to check on her mother, said she has stage 2 liver cancer.

And now they have to deal with concerns about dangerous water. Cramer said she does not use the city water for baths. Instead, her daughter gathers a basin and gallons of bottled water to heat on the stove, as she did this day.

When the water is ready, “I stand up and she pores the water over me,” Cramer said, a routine they said they have followed for three months.”

The daughter said she does not trust the regular water.

“I don’t use the city water for anything,” she said. “I won’t even bathe in it.”

She said she washes her hands using gallons of water that rest on her bathroom sink. Consequently, she said, she spends lots of time gathering cases of bottled water. The kitchen in her home, she said, is filled with hundreds of cases of water, nearly stacked to the ceiling.

The mother and daughter said they tested positive for elevated levels of lead and have had incidents of itchy rashes. Cramer said she began giving her cat, Huey, bottled water and then noticed he too had developed sores.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has seen an increased number of skin irritation and rashes reported by residents and doctors since the beginning of the crisis, but there is no evidence that they are related to the water, said Jennifer Eisner, the department’s public information officer.

“Lead is not absorbed the same way through the skin as consumption,” Eisner said. “At this time, the scientific evidence that we have supports that showering is safe.”

Triplett and her mother don’t believe her. Though their doctors have not confirmed that their rashes were a direct result of the contaminants in the water, they believe the water is the culprit.

“It has to be the lead,” Triplett said.

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