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Flint families tough it out amid contaminated water

Jan 23, 2016

Like many residents of Flint, She'a Cobb doesn't trust the water that comes out of her faucets. So now, every day is a carefully orchestrated one — from brushing her teeth to taking a shower.

Life with limited tap water is stressful for She'a Cobb
Credit Mercedes Mejia

Cobb is a 31-year old bus driver who lives with her daughter and mother in Flint, a struggling blue-collar town where 40% of people live in poverty.

Cobb's family has been buying a lot of bottled water lately.  To save on water, each person in the family is only allowed a few mouthfuls of water to scrub their teeth.  

The water in parts of Flint has high levels of lead.  The city switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River to save money almost two years ago. That new water was more corrosive and wasn't treated properly. It corroded the pipes, which caused lead to leach into the water.

Officials with the city, the state, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delayed telling residents about the problem for months, leading to dangerously high blood lead levels in some children in the city.

Flint residents have been told not to drink or cook with tap water and to use lead filters and bottled water instead.  ​So Cobb has had to stop doing something she loves.

Cobb uses just a few sips of bottled water to brush her teeth. She also uses a lot of Listerine to help supplement the process.
Credit Mercedes Mejia

“Man, I love cooking!” says Cobbs.  “I do not cook now, ‘cause I can’t use the water.”

These days, Cobb eats almost exclusively at restaurants, usually outside the city limits. At every restaurant, she quizzes the staff about where they get their water. If it's from Flint, she doesn't drink it.

Cobb snacks on crackers and granola bars throughout the day. She rations her bottled water intake and says she's been getting headaches because she's dehydrated. She's even stopped exercising because that takes extra water.

Buying cases of bottled water and constantly eating out gets expensive, too.

Cobb has also mastered the two-minute shower. She jumps in and gets wet and then turns the water away from her body, while lathering up. Once she’s soapy, she quickly rinses off and hops out.

“It is definitely not relaxing,” she says.

Residents can pick up one free case of bottled water per day at fire stations around town, given out by the National Guard. Cobb recently picked up a case for the first time. Normally the line is long and Cobb says she just doesn't trust the government.

“Oh, man, I hate them," she says.  "Before this happened, I lived my life every day with no worry and no stress about whether or not what I ate and how I lived and what I did was going to actually affect the longevity of my life.”

Cobb educates herself about water and lead contamination issues by constantly reading, researching, and networking. She keeps notes on what she learns in a spiral notebook.
Credit Mercedes Mejia

Now she thinks about this stuff all the time. She especially wants to know when they’ll fix the city’s infrastructure.

“When are you all going to fix the pipes? Like, you can only give out bottled water for so long.”

She'a Cobb shows reporter Kyle Norris the instructions for the water filter the city gave her. Cobb is trying to figure out how much lead the unit filters, but the instructional pamphlet is complicated.
Credit Mercedes Mejia

Cobb says people in Flint want new pipes so they can live like anyone else in any other American city.