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After ignoring and trying to discredit people in Flint, the state was forced to face the problem

Dec 16, 2015

If you missed parts 1 or 2 of Not Safe to Drink, you can find them here.

Back in September, research scientists from Virginia Tech came to Flint to break some bad news.

Marc Edwards, PhD, of Virginia Tech University, holds two vials of water, one from Flint and the other from Detroit. Edwards' research helped uncover the serious problems affecting Flint's water supply.
Credit Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Their tests showed high levels of lead in people’s tap water. Lead is especially harmful for young children.

It can lead to things like a lower IQ and attention problems. And once that lead gets into a kid’s blood, the damage is done. You can’t reverse it.

So the researchers from Virginia Tech warned people in Flint to stop drinking the tap water.

Meanwhile, city and state officials continued to say Flint’s water was safe.

“I don’t know how they’re getting the results they’re getting,” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel said at the time. “I know that it doesn’t match with any of the other surveillance in the area and I think that it, at the end, I don’t necessarily think it’s as important as the broader issue of reminding people that if you have lead service lines to your home or you’ve got lead pipes in your home, it’s worth being concerned about.”

The impression the state repeatedly gave is that the risk to Flint residents was no different than it was when Flint got water from Detroit. It was no different in Flint than any other Michigan city with lead service lines.

But there were big differences between the water Flint got from Detroit and the water it pumped from the Flint River.

The most important one was corrosion control treatment

Corrosion control treatment is what coats the inside of old lead pipes and plumbing, preventing water from corroding lead and other heavy metals from the pipes and getting into people’s tap water. Think of it like Pepto Bismol but for pipes.

flint river water more corrosive

When Flint bought water from Detroit, it was treated to control corrosion. But when Flint started pumping water from the river, it didn’t use any corrosion control treatment. That’s because officials at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality told the city it didn’t need to.

Not right away, anyway.

MDEQ said Flint needed a year or so to test the water first to figure out the right treatment.

Wurfel put it this way:

“It's just a matter of getting it right. You know if I handed you a bag of chocolate chips and sack of flour and said ‘make chocolate chips cookies,’ we’d still need a recipe, right? And they need to get the results from that testing to understand how much of what to put in the water to address the water chemistry from the river which is different from the water chemistry in Lake Huron.”

But all the other water experts I talked to said this wait-and-see approach was a really bad idea.

Without treatment, the protective coating on the inside of the pipes that built up over the years from Detroit’s water likely disappeared. And that’s what caused lead levels to spike in many homes in Flint.

When Lee Anne Walters discovered Flint wasn’t treating for corrosion control last March, she told the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA asked the state about it right away.

At first, the MDEQ said Flint was using corrosion control. But when the EPA asked what kind of treatment it was using, the state confessed: Flint wasn't doing anything.

And at first, the MDEQ said Flint was using corrosion control. But when the EPA asked what kind of treatment it was using, the state confessed: Flint wasn’t doing anything.

Peter Grevatt, who directs the EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, says it’s really unusual for a city to go from buying completely treated water (what Flint got from Detroit) to treating its own.

It’s fair to say state regulators had not dealt with this situation in recent memory.

Because of the lead problems in Flint, Grevatt has sent a clarifying memo to all states, saying basically, you cannot not have corrosion control treatment. It’s too important to skip, even for a little while.

“We have about 10 million lead service lines in the ground across the country,” says Grevatt. “So we know for certain that there are many communities that have building materials in their distribution systems that could present a hazard to the population. More than 99% of the 52,000 drinking water systems across the country have been able to meet the requirements of the lead and copper rule and protect the public.”

The water service line is the pipe that takes water from the water main, in front of your house, to your house. Before the 1960s, many water service lines were made of lead.

Many of the 10 million lead service lines that remain in the country are in older cities. Cities like Flint.

Flint should’ve tested for lead at homes with lead service lines. People who live in these homes have the highest risk of lead exposure from their water. If a city’s water treatment isn’t working, that’s where it would show up first.

But here’s the thing. Flint doesn’t even know where its lead service lines are.

A century’s worth of records on index cards

In Flint’s public utility building, on the side of a hallway, there are six standard filing cabinets. On top of the cabinets is a stack of tattered, yellowing maps.

Flint's records of where its lead service lines are located are still on hundreds of index cards.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Inside the filing cabinets are two incomplete sets of records. Some are like a time capsule, handwritten index cards going back a century.

These index cards, these yellow maps, these are Flint’s records.

“It’s not ideal but it is what we have,” Flint’s Water Distribution Supervisor, Robert Bincsik, admitted. “A lot of things that you, I know personally, I mean, I spent a lot of time in the field, so a lot of things you learn, I mean you, we just do from memory. I mean, a lot of this stuff there’s a lot of things about the water system I know that are just in my personal memory. We do with what we have and we try to do the best we can and this is what we have.”

Other Flint records are visibly decaying.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

So when Flint tested for lead in its water last summer, it wasn’t testing the homes it was supposed to, mainly because Flint doesn’t know exactly where those homes are. Its records of lead service lines live on 100-year-old index cards that aren’t organized in any kind of helpful way.

Still, Flint officials relied on those records to pick which homes to test for lead. They also put a shout out on Twitter. One employee canvassed his neighborhood, going door to door looking for water samples.

It got a little frantic the last weekend in June. Because by early July, Flint had to submit a report to the state.

This report was supposed to measure how much lead was getting into the water in neighborhoods with lead service lines. The numbers from each of those homes would get put through a math formula to arrive at one, very important, number.

That number would determine whether Flint’s tap water was above or below a limit for lead set by the federal government.

What happened next kind of defies logic.

The state continues to say the water is safe

The state picked out two of Flint’s samples that tested highest for lead -- and it invalidated them

One of the samples the state tossed was from Lee Anne Walters’ house. It was by far the highest lead sample in Flint’s report.

“I was told by the EPA that they couldn’t throw my samples out,” she said. “That my samples had to be used.”

Officials with the MDEQ say they invalidated the sample for a technical reason - and of all reasons, it was that Walters had a water filter.

The bottom line is, by throwing these two high lead samples out, Flint’s number shifted. It went from being just above the federal limit, to just below the limit.

It meant city and state officials could continue saying the water was safe. It meant they wouldn’t have to mount a major campaign to tell residents how to protect themselves and their families from lead in their water.

I talked to Jim Sygo about this. He’s the guy the state put in charge of the MDEQ's water division after the department came under fire for its handling of Flint. I asked him -- even if it does turn out it was technically ok to throw out Lee Anne Walters’ sample, it just looks bad, right?

“Well, you know, there’s not a lot I can say about, a lot of things look bad to people until they understand what the process and the procedures are,” he said. “I think our biggest point is we were following the requirements of the regulations basically in doing that.”

So for awhile here, even after outside experts are raising the alarm about Flint’s lead problem, the state kept sticking to its message that the water there was safe.

That is, until a Flint pediatrician decided to put her reputation on the line for Flint kids.

The percentage of kids with elevated lead levels nearly doubled

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha heads the Pediatric Residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint. She was the first to put together the data to find that blood lead levels of children in Flint had nearly doubled.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Less than a mile from the Flint River sits the Hurley Medical Center, where Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha heads the Pediatric Residency Program.

She says a longtime friend of hers had heard about Flint’s water problems, and suggested she take a look at lead levels in the city’s children.

She first ran the data on Hurley Children’s Clinic patients.

Right away, she noticed a significant increase in the percentage of kids with elevated blood lead levels when she compared samples from before the city switched its water source, and after.

“But our sample size was too small so I couldn’t go screaming from the rooftops,” she said. “This is such a politically messy issue. We are a city chartered hospital. And we get, you know, money from the state. It’s mayoral election season, so it is a mess.”

This group -- not politicians, not activists, but doctors -- called on the city to switch from the Flint River, back to Detroit's water

So Hanna-Attisha got her hands on more data. Pretty much all the data from the area, which goes to Hurley to get processed.

She ran those statistics, and her findings said after Flint switched to the river for its drinking water, the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels nearly doubled. That’s for children age five and younger, who live inside the city limits.

She rechecked her work over and over again.

Before she went public, she needed to be sure about this.

She gathered other area doctors together, and shared the information.

And on a Thursday in late September, they held a press conference to reveal their findings. And this group -- not politicians, not activists, but doctors -- called on the city to switch from the Flint River, back to Detroit’s water, to protect public health.

It was, forgive the pun, a watershed moment.

The dynamic begins to shift in Flint

Protestors in Flint
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

“I was shocked to see so many people there. I think every mayoral candidate was at this press conference,” Hanna-Attisha remembers.

But state officials quickly tried to discredit Hanna-Attisha.

Over the next few days, state officials tried to convince reporters that Hanna-Attisha’s numbers were wrong. Pretty quickly, she started getting calls and emails from reporters asking her to respond to numbers the state was releasing that tried to debunk her work.

Hanna-Attisha was sure she had it right. But she was basically getting a very public takedown from very powerful state agencies.

“I just started becoming almost physically ill,” she said. “How can you not second guess yourself? How can you not feel like, oh my god, what did I do?”

She went back over the numbers. The numbers didn’t lie.

It took several days, but eventually state officials came around. They rechecked their own numbers and found Hanna-Attisha was right.

Lee Anne Walters stood at the back of the room, during that first press conference, behind the TV cameras, watching Dr. Hanna-Attisha go through her slideshow. The slideshow featured a hypothetical Flint child.

Hanna-Attisha detailed the struggles this child might face after being exposed to high levels of lead.

This child would be at greater risk of needing special education. At greater risk of behavior problems, and ADHD. At greater risk of getting swept up into the criminal justice system.

The switch back to Detroit water came too late for Gavin Walters, whose blood lead level tests showed he has lead poisoning. His family has since moved down to Virginia, but his mom still uses bottled water, waiting on tests to confirm that the tap water there is safe.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Lee Anne Walters listened to all of these things about this hypothetical child. And she shed a few tears for a very real kid. Her four year old son, Gavin.

“The state nurse told me, oh, I understand your son has lead poisoning, but it’s not as bad as it could be, he’s only going to lose a few IQ points,” she remembers. “No, that’s my child. How would you feel if someone told you that about your child? How is that fair to him?”

It took a couple weeks, but eventually, officials in Lansing held their own press conference.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and other top state officials conceded. In the interest of public health in Flint, the city would stop using the Flint River for drinking water. After saying for months that Flint couldn’t afford to switch back to Detroit’s water system, the state, the city and the Mott Foundation managed to scrounge together $12 million.

And on October 16th, with much, much less fanfare, some Flint official pushed the tiny black button at the water plant to reopen the valve to Detroit water.

No more Flint River water.

It was a victory for the people in Flint who’d been fighting for this for more than a year now.

A victory too late for the Walters family

That came too late for Gavin, Lee Anne Walters’ son.

In October, the Walters moved from Flint to Virginia. Walters’ husband Dennis went from the Navy reserves, back to active duty. The Navy transferred them to Norfolk.

“A big, huge part of the reason why my husband went back to active duty was to get us out of Flint,” she said. “Because of what it was doing and the health concerns and the fact that we weren't being listened to with our child being poisoned.”

Gavin and Garrett Walters.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Her four year old twin boys are already doing better in Virginia. No more weird skin rashes. Gavin is putting back on some of the weight he lost.

In Virginia, even bath time has returned to normal.

In Flint, the lead levels in the Walters’ water were so high she was told not to let her kids even touch it. So once a week, she’d spend 45 minutes warming up jugs of bottled water on the stove to bathe her twin boys Gavin and Garrett.

Now, she just turns on the faucet. Makes sure the temperature is right. Plugs the tub. Throws in a few plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You know, like most any parent in America.

After everything this mom went through in Flint, you better believe she’s getting her water tested for lead in her new home, some 700 miles away.

But for now, Walters is still so wary about the safety of tap water, she doesn’t let the boys spend any more time in the tub than they need to.

“Look at me,” she tells them, when Gavin and Garrett protest an early end to bath time. “I promise you that once the tests come back and says it’s A-OK you will take a really, really, really long bath. Okay? Okay.”

So while bath time is back to normal in Virginia, the Walters still have a bottled water stash in the garage. She still uses bottled water to make everything from their morning coffee to the instant mashed potatoes at dinner.

“I will not drink it 'til it's tested,” she says. “I will never, ever trust a water source again, just because I'm told to.”

The struggle Lee Anne Walters went through as a mom, it’s put her in places she never imagined.

Countless late nights worrying. Confrontations with government officials, pediatricians, people who just didn’t listen, refused to believe there was anything wrong.

Over the next few years, if Gavin has health problems or trouble at school, she'll be wondering: is this a symptom of his lead poisoning?

The experience has changed Walters, and her family too. It’s not just the lead poisoning of one of her babies. Over the next few years, if Gavin has health problems or trouble at school, she’ll be wondering: is this a symptom of his lead poisoning?

Even now, even though Walters is no longer in Flint, she’s still fighting.

She’s pushing for accountability from the state, she has testified in front of national panels, pestered U.S. congressmen, insisting the regulations on lead in water get tightened up; in the hopes that no other mom has to go through this nightmare again.

This is the third and final installment of Not Safe to Drink, a special documentary from Michigan Radio. Catch up with Part One and Part Two.