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FLINT, Mich.—Nine-year-old Kaniya Fuqua-Strickland fidgets as the adults talk about her memory loss. Flint born and raised—just like her mother, a nurse’s aide—Kaniya leans forward on her long legs. She pivots against the kitchen table and shifts her gaze from morning cartoons to the floor to her grandmother, who is holding forth a few feet away.
“Kaniya is a child that …” begins her grandma, Gail Fuqua, mother to five and grandmother to 14.
“The memory loss!” Kaniya’s mom, Felecia Waters, interrupts.
“She do. She got a short term memory loss,” Gail says. “It just came out of nowhere.”
Kaniya listens, but says nothing and looks at the floor.
Was It The Water?
Telling strangers your child may have lost cognitive ability has recently begun to pass for normal in Flint, where the public water system now contains lead. The contamination arose in mid-2014, after the city’s emergency financial manager, a gubernatorial appointee without reelection concerns, switched the city’s water source to the Flint River, arguably—but not effectively—to save money. The water damaged the pipes, which began leaching lead, even after the water source was switched. State officials knew there was a problem by early 2015, but they dismissed complaints until journalists, scientists, doctors, and federal officials documented the problem that fall. In January, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder sent in the National Guard and President Obama declared a state of emergency.
Spend a couple days talking to people in Flint, and it becomes clear that one question lies in wait behind most every conversation here: Was it the water? A chemical worker whose girlfriend miscarried last year wondered: Was it the water? When a local magazine editor’s child, who has mild cerebral palsy, began to have stronger symptoms, she wondered: Was it the water? When several neighbors of Kaniya’s other grandmother, Tammy Waters, developed liver problems, Tammy wondered: Was it the water? After Kaniya’s two-year-old sister, Taylor, fell ill with pneumonia in December, Felecia and Gail wondered through tears at the hospital: Was it the water?
The only thing city water is good for, Gail says, making an observation I heard from several people I spoke to, “is flushing the toilet.”
That is less a bitter observation than a practical one, because the scientific facts around lead offer little evidence to the contrary. Lead exposure occurs when the toxin is ingested orally, and public health officials say there is no safe level of exposure, particularly for children. To avoid exposure without foregoing city water completely means parsing a jumble of directives, conditional directives, provisional warnings, and hard facts so vast that it quickly feels, at least to a visitor, overwhelming. For example, bathing in water that has particulate lead—which is the most common form of lead in Flint—should be safe if no water is swallowed. Washing dishes with it should be safe, if each dish, fork, cup and plate is wiped down to remove any lead that remains after water has evaporated. Filters can remove lead, but they must be properly certified for that purpose; eating and drinking without worry, therefore, means verifying not only that water is filtered, but filtered correctly.
Felecia began buying bottled water as soon as the taps ran brown, and her three children’s most recent blood tests showed their lead levels were well below the standard for concern. Part of that, Felecia suspects, is because she recently began bathing them in bottled water. This requires her to heat water on the stove, and it drives up her electric bill. She economizes by bathing herself in tap water.
In the early afternoon, Gail visits the city’s indoor farmer’s market to shop for dinner. On her way in, she passes a juice stand that has posted a paper showing water test results, with “Yes, we are lead free” scribbled in marker. Another stand selling pastries and coffee has no such notice. Neither does a produce stall where Gail bought green onions that sat in a tub of water. Had the water been contaminated, the vegetables could have transmitted lead; the proprietor explains that the building is tested every two weeks and is currently considered clean.
Elsewhere in town, eateries have begun posting notices about their water supply; a Rally’s marquee advertises 20 wings for $12.99 and “filtered water.” Most people I spoke with had stopped eating out. Others had even stopped cooking. One of Gail’s daughters-in-law, Dolores Campbell, told me she now relies solely on TV dinners and Hot Pockets, eating the latter on paper plates and towels—it’s the easiest way to avoid the problem, and cost, of eating without using water.
Gail, though, persists in cooking, and she pays its price in water. When she prepares dinner for her daughter, grandchildren, and their other grandma, she goes through two cases, by my count—double the allotment of free water she receives. Then there’s bathing and tooth brushing, cleaning the sink and the counter, watering houseplants. When Felecia describes the work required to bathe her three children in warm bottled water, Tammy counsels her: “I tell myself, ‘Back in the day they just had to go to the creek and take a bath,’” she says. “They had to creek it.”
Before I leave, there’s another disturbing conversation that passes for normal. For months, Felecia, who’s currently raising her children alone, has been eyeing the house next door to her mother’s as a possible place to buy. But that’s changed.
“What’s the point of moving into a house where the water is messed up?” she says. Earlier in the day, she’d gotten called about a job interview an hour south, and she’ll move if she gets it. Gail listens to her daughter talking about taking the grandkids and trying to raise them on her own, 40 miles away. Like Kaniya in the morning, her face is blank.
“I do want the kids outta this,” she sighs. “We been talking about it, and if it takes ‘em longer than a year, then we’re all for her leaving with the kids. And you see for yourself it’s going to take longer than that.”
Tracie McMillan is a freelance journalist and author based in Detroit and Brooklyn, and the author of The American Way of Eating. A senior fellow for the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, she writes about food and equity for National Geographic and is a regular contributor to our food blog, The Plate, among other publications. She can be followed at @TMMcMillan. She grew up 15 miles south of Flint.