In Flint, lead contamination spurs fight for clean water

The Flint Water Plant is quiet now that all of the Flint River water has been emptied from the plant and the city returns to Detroit water.

The Flint Water Plant is quiet now that all of the Flint River water has been emptied from the plant and the city returns to Detroit water.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 - 6:06pm

FLINT, Mich. — On a Saturday evening in October, several hundred trick-or-treaters streamed up and down Calumet Street on the city’s east side. Traffic clogged the neighborhood’s streets, lined with well-maintained Tudors, Colonials and mature trees cloaked in hues of red and yellow. Princesses, ninja turtles, witches and firemen darted between the cars, and on their front lawn, Bob and Melodee Mabbitt passed out candy from beneath a rain umbrella. The Mabbitt’s stretch of Calumet is wealthier than most of Flint’s neighborhoods, and draws kids from all over town on Halloween. But this year, along with Snickers, Crunch bars and boxes of Nerds, the Mabbitts were handing out leaflets.

The letters were bold and black, and they warned Flint parents their kids may have been exposed to toxic lead from their drinking water. “You are getting this as a courtesy to let you know that one or more of your neighbors had their tap water tested and was informed they have very high contents of lead and other pollutants in their water,” the fliers read. Nayyirah Shariff, a Flint community organizer and friend of Melodee’s, slid the white, folded fliers into dozens of old pillowcases and plastic buckets shaped like jack-o’-lanterns. “Don’t worry, there’s candy, too,” she assured a group of kids clad in raincoats. “Happy Halloween!”

In October, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) announced the city of Flint’s drinking water contained elevated levels of lead. A local pediatrician’s report the week before had shown a significant jump in the number of Flint children with elevated blood lead levels, and those samples correlated with ZIP codes in which independent water samples pointed to lead contamination. State officials initially discounted the data. Eight days later, they reversed course. The city would again source its water from the Detroit River. For the residents of Flint, it was too little, too late. They had been ringing the alarm over the city’s water quality for more than a year, almost immediately after the city opted to treat its water in-house from the Flint River.

Flint had already planned to join a new pipeline, the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would eventually serve mid-Michigan and the state’s thumb. Knowing Flint had plans to leave, Detroit’s water authority said it would stop supplying water to the city. At the time, Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager who, in a cost-saving move, decided that while the city waited for the KWA to come online, Flint would treat its own water for the first time in decades. Residents say officials brushed off their concerns again and again. They reported that water ran from their sinks discolored in browns, blues and yellows. Then came the hair loss, rashes that wouldn’t go away, rotting teeth, discolored shower tiles. In July, the city’s mayor drank a glass of water on local morning television to prove the water was safe. It wasn’t.

 

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters shares a photo of herself holding up a water sample taken from her sink during a city council meeting.

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters shares a photo of herself holding up a water sample taken from her sink during a city council meeting.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

Melissa Mays, a Flint mother of four, had brought us here, to Calumet Street. Mays, her husband, and their four sons were all diagnosed with lead poisoning last year, and she’s spent months working with Shariff, clergy members, activists and a ragtag collective of Flint residents to pressure the city, the state, the feds — anyone, really — to do something. In their living room, about 10 minutes from Calumet, Mays’ husband applied zombie makeup to all four kids, his own face and hands already covered in the white, red and black paint. Two candelabras decorated to look like they were covered in spider webs sat atop a tablecloth patterned with skulls. I slid into a chair next to Derek and Ruby, the Daily columnist and photographer who joined me on the trip. A row of electric guitars hung vertically across one wall, and another was plastered with the kids’ drawings and class projects. Mays and Shariff, who had come over for the interview, were seated on the table’s long side, and I asked how the whole debacle started. Mays spoke with dizzying speed, peppering a timeline of the last two years with talk of trihalomethanes, parts per billion, Freedom of Information Act requests and the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Mays is not a scientist or policy analyst, but it was apparent that, out of necessity, this research has ended up a full-time endeavor.

Not long after water started flowing from the Flint River and into taps and showerheads across the city, residents started noticing their water running yellow and brown. It smelled funny, and tasted strange, too. People were showing up at Flint City Council meetings displaying bottles filled with the brown-colored water. “It’s a quality, safe product,” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said at the time. “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.” Four months later, water on the city’s west side tested positive for E. coli, and the city issued a series of boil-water advisories. Shariff said she only came across the alerts accidentally when clicking around the city’s website; Mays said she didn’t hear about them until after the third advisory.

By September 2014, Mays had enough; she was convinced the problem was more than just bacteria. She said her cat was throwing up, her own hair was falling out and a splotchy red rash had started to stretch across her face. Mays’ 2-year-old niece was staying in the house then, and every time she took a bath, the toddler broke out with a rash all over her behind. The rash covered only the body parts where the tub’s water hit. Eczema cream didn’t help, and the child’s doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

“And I’m like, ‘What is happening to this kid?’ The rest of us were just used to it. Our skin was turning scaly,” Mays said. “My son — my middle child — just had rashes up and down his arms, and if you tried to put lotion on it — it just burned. It was chemical burns. It was on my face, my whole cheek bone. And any time you put anything on it, even makeup, you would just scream because it hurt so bad. But they’re on T.V. saying, ‘Water’s safe, water’s safe, water’s safe.’ ”

AUDIO: Hear Flint residents talk about their experiences with city water.

In January 2014, the city distributed a letter notifying homeowners that the city had violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act — not for lead, but for total trihalomethanes. The city’s water was found to contain a high level of trihalomethanes — a cancer-causing chlorine byproduct. By this point, members of City Council called on the governor’s appointed emergency manager to abandon the Flint River water source, and the city of Detroit offered to start selling water to Flint again. But Flint’s emergency manager opted to stay the course. To investigate, residents called in a water activist, who told Mays not only that she shouldn’t drink the water, but that she shouldn’t cook or shower with it either. And if the city didn’t have a lead problem now, he said, they would soon. Mays didn’t know it at the time, but they already did.

“When you’re boiling the water to make spaghetti, you’re just making all of those heavy metals and all the contaminants basically bond together, and you’re basically eating poison food. When you wash your clothes, the heavy metals stay in the fabrics so it’s rubbing against your skin all day and god forbid you sweat, you’re going to absorb all of that through your pores. So I can’t wash my dishes here, I can’t do my laundry, I can’t move because I’m 16 years into a mortgage and nobody’s going to buy my poison water house.”

Mays took us into the kids’ bathroom. A five-step instruction sheet for showering was taped to the wall, written by Mays in neat, black marker. Step Two: Sit down and as the tub fills, use the cup and faucet to wash your face and hair. Rinse well. Step Four: Brush your teeth in the sink using bottled water and small cups. Don’t forget Q-tips. “Love You!” is scrawled and underlined across the bottom. Next to it another reminder: “Brush Your Hair!” I asked how the kids took to the new routine. “It makes them angry, and then once we found out about the lead, I took out the letting the water fill up, so they just used a big cup to let it go over their heads,” she said. “So yeah, my 17-year-old son just loves that, to sit down and use a cup to shower and to use bottled water to brush their teeth.”

Mays brought in an outside expert to test the water — Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech University who specializes in water treatment. She said she drove 62 of the test kits to neighborhoods across Flint, picked them up and helped residents complete them. The lead levels in water at Flint resident LeeAnne Walters’ house was averaging 2,500 parts per billion. Her family was losing hair and developing rashes, too. The legal level is 15. In a September 2015 report, Edwards concluded that the corrosiveness of Flint’s water was causing lead to leach from the city’s aging pipes and into the water. The state maintained it was meeting all lead and copper standards.

An empty lead and copper water sampling bottle in the office of the The Flint Water Plant.

An empty lead and copper water sampling bottle in the office of the The Flint Water Plant.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

 

On Sept. 24, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a University alum and a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center Children’s Clinic in Flint, cross-referenced that data with information the county already had — blood lead levels for infants at ages 1 and 2, which the state is required to test for kids who are at a greater risk of ingesting lead paint chips in older homes. What she found: The number of children in Flint with elevated blood lead levels — defined as 5 micrograms per deciliter or more — had increased from 2.1 percent in the 20 months prior to Sept. 15, 2013, to 4 percent between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, 2015. In several ZIP codes, those figures increased from 2.5 percent to 6.3 percent during that same time period.

“Everyone who has challenged the narrative — which was ‘the water is safe to drink’ — they were minimized,” Shariff said.

But the evidence built up, and eventually it was hard to ignore there was a problem. Finally, on Oct. 8, 2015 — nearly two years after Flint residents started drinking water from the Flint River — the state changed course and announced they had come up with a $12 million deal to allow the city to return to Detroit water. “I’m in full support of the return to the Great Lakes Water Authority,” Snyder said during the announcement. “We all care about the citizens of Flint.” Snyder promised to convene a task force — which includes a University professor and several University alums — that would determine what went wrong. Detroit water would again run through Flint’s pipes, and Flint’s parents could rest easy knowing their kids’ drinking water was safe.

But Mays says people shouldn’t be so quick to chalk the case up as a crisis averted. The story of water in Flint is not confined to that period of two years when the city’s water was unsafe for drinking — or by the final hurrah moment in October when the good guys fighting the good fight won the day. Flint’s challenges also reach further, into a history colored by the population loss and decay that made it easy to brush the city aside, as well as into a future that these two years will in many ways shape.

A timeline of Flint's water struggles.

A timeline of Flint's water struggles.
Design by Emily Schumer

 

On the banks of the Flint River

You could argue the city of Flint, like a lot of cities, was born from the river. The confluences between city and water stretch back far — to a time when native people fought over the river’s banks. A handful of fords, where the river could be easily traversed, made the land highly sought after. In 1819, before the great industrial might of Buick City generated wealth and helped the city’s population grow, and before the city’s slide into poverty and decay, a fur trapper and his wife set up a post near the river’s banks. For the traders who came here — and to Michigan, a territory hugged on four sides by the Great Lakes — water was life-giving. The rivers provided habitat to beavers, and the water ferried birch-bark canoes downstream, piled up with pelts for sale back East and across the vast Atlantic.

In later years, Michigan’s rivers and lakes were clogged with logs, floated downstream for processing into lumber that would build this nation’s cities. The water fed the state’s growing agricultural economy as well as the companies that empowered the United States’ industrial might — industries that allowed old lumber towns across the Rust Belt to boom, before they would hemorrhage wealth and population a few decades later. Today, water is the basis for Michigan’s wildly successful “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign, which helps drive the state’s vibrant tourism industry in the towns dotting Lake Michigan. For a whole lot of Michiganders, their Michigan and their Midwest does not include the vast and aging networks of pipe that snake beneath the earth, nor the sediment-colored water of the rivers Rouge, Flint, Detroit and Saginaw.

“We connect to water very emotionally, we love our water, it’s Pure Michigan, it’s why that ad campaign really sings to us,” John Austin, a University of Michigan lecturer and co-author of a report on Michigan’s ‘Blue Economy,’ told me during a phone interview later in the week. “And so we appreciate that even more than this hidden water infrastructure that brings us clean water and is essential to basic life and health.”

Today, one in five jobs in Michigan are linked to water, and Austin said the state could play a major role in developing innovative ways to use water more efficiently, particularly as water resources grow increasingly strained. But as much as Michiganders — residents of a state whose surrounding Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater supply — love their water resources, Austin says it’s easy to forget about the hidden infrastructure that delivers fresh water to taps on demand.

“What Flint really illustrates is … as a first order of business, we depend on water for life and that water has to be clean and available to people,” he said. “What Flint exposed is our water infrastructure — that in every community in Michigan we’ve got aged infrastructure and this shows that since we haven’t invested in remaking our water infrastructure — in rebuilding those systems — they can potentially kill us.”

For Austin, this dynamic illustrates the need to invest not only in infrastructure above ground, such as roads and bridges, but also in the infrastructure that sits below the surface. With debate over paying to fix Michigan’s roads reaching a boiling point last spring, Austin said people should be just as concerned with the invisible infrastructure — particularly the pipes that shepherd clean drinking water into our homes every day.

The Flint Water Plant's oldest facility was built in 1917.

The Flint Water Plant's oldest facility was built in 1917.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

 

Through the pipes, below the ground

After Halloween, I spent a week trying to get into Flint’s water plant. When I spoke to Mike Glasgow, the city’s utilities director, on the phone, he told me how excited he was to hear young people were interested in municipal water delivery. But in the days leading up to the final reporting trip to Flint, the woman who handles his schedule kept telling me to call back later; she hadn’t had a chance to nail anything down. By Thursday evening, I wasn’t getting any response at all. I decided I would just show up at the facility anyway.

The Flint Water Treatment Plant sits on a sprawling campus just off the freeway. The complex is circled with tall chain-link fencing topped with barbed-wire spirals. A long driveway leads up to the main building, which is sand-colored and doesn’t boast much in the way of decorative finishes. A white water tower hulks above the building, around which another half-dozen smaller structures are gathered.  Only a handful of cars congregated in the parking lot, and a sign in one of the front windows indicated the office entrance is around back. Inside, the plant’s office was drab and dated. Paper maps hang on the paneled walls, and a collection of empty lead and copper water sampling bottles rest on a shelf nearby. I found Brent Wright, the plant’s supervisor, in an office lined with dozens of binders. Wright looked understandably confused when we enter. “Hi, we’re here for a tour of the plant,” I said enthusiastically. “Mike knows we’re coming.” I only half-lied. I started to sweat a bit when he dialed up Glasgow to make sure the story checked out, but when Wright hung up the phone, he told us, “The best place to start is from the beginning.”

Flint’s first water treatment plant was built in 1917. The original red brick building stands a few hundred yards from the present facility, and looks a lot like an abandoned automobile factory. Many of the square panes of glass are smashed in, and Wright said the roof collapsed a few years back. The city built a second facility, the current plant, in 1952, but it would only operate fully until 1967, when the city stopped treating its own water and started buying it from Detroit. During the peak of Flint’s prosperity and population, when sprawling factories turned thousands of GM cars off production lines, both plants together pumped 100 million gallons of water per day. Today, with most of those factories shuttered and the city’s population significantly depleted, the Flint plant was only pumping about 16 million gallons daily when it last operated in October. In 1960, 196,940 people lived in Flint, according to the U.S. Census. Today, 99,002 people call this 33-square-mile city home.

With the city back on Detroit water, there wasn’t much going inside Flint’s water treatment plant during the visit. The final gallons of Flint River water had just been emptied out the week before. A few construction workers wearing hard hats moved through the massive building’s darkened cement corridors, getting the place ready for the KWA pipeline to go live a few years down the road. The process for cleaning and distributing water is not incredibly simple. Wright is well versed in it after 25 years working his way up at the plant. First, the water is pumped from the river. Until it’s pumped back out of the factory as clean drinking water, that’s the only part of the process that isn’t propelled by gravity. From there, the water is lifted into chambers for ozone treatment, created by putting together electricity, oxygen and nitrogen, which kills much of the bacteria.

The Flint Water Plant is quiet now that all of the Flint River water has been emptied from the plant and the city returns to water from the Detroit River.

The Flint Water Plant is quiet now that all of the Flint River water has been emptied from the plant and the city returns to water from the Detroit River.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

 

Upstairs, where generators create this ozone, I asked why didn’t the plant know there would be a corrosion problem, and add corrosion control into the process. Water is corrosive by nature, but after years of industrial waste dumped into the river, it was especially so. “Basically, by being a softening plant, we didn’t think we were going to need corrosion control,” Wright said. “It was brought up in a meeting and the DEQ said, ‘No, let’s wait and see what your lead and copper sampling is and then we’ll look into corrosion control.’ ” Wright went on to say that the switch back to Detroit was unnecessary and that the city could have handled the problem on its own. “Yeah, we could have taken care of it,” he said. “We’re doing it now. We’re setting up corrosion control now because they’re saying this water has stripped some of the heavy phosphates out of the pipes over this last year that had built up when we were on Detroit water, so we’re adding more phosphates.”

Wright led us through the plant’s laboratory, where glass jars, beakers, lab coats and clipboards lined the walls. From there, we followed a series of dim hallways into a massive room where sediment is removed from the water. A catwalk stretched across a giant reservoir-like chamber I figured could hold the water of several dozen swimming pools. Without the lights on, seeing the bottom proved difficult, even as we moved across the walkway suspended directly over it. Back when water was still held here, enormous paddles would have rotated through the water, pushing sediments to the bottom and separating them from the clean water. Peering down into the empty vat felt like standing on a deserted basketball court after the floodlights have been turned off and the crowds have all gone home.

While Wright kept talking about turbidity, lime and filtration, I couldn’t get over the bigness of the whole thing — not only the millions of gallons that once moved through this place each day, but also the weightiness of the task at hand. That charge — to ensure the safety of the water that makes its way into your toddler’s bathtub, mixes your baby’s formula and washes down your grandpa’s heart medicine — is clearly a heavy burden, a task that’s unquestionably important to get right.

Policy failure

The debate over what happened in Flint will likely continue for some time. The governor has convened an independent task force to investigate, and the EPA is releasing their own report on the situation. A recent Michigan Radio report suggested the state told city officials to leave two incredibly high water samples off their official water test report — allowing recorded lead levels in the water to remain below the legal threshold. Many of the sources said they thought officials should be fired, and some should get jail time for what happened in Flint. I had hoped to ask Walling, Flint’s mayor, about all of this, but his press secretary instead offered Howard Croft, head of the city’s Department of Public Works. Walling had the day before received an early punishment from the city’s residents: His bid for re-election was defeated.

A few days after Croft asked to reschedule the interview, he resigned. “It is with deep sadness that I tender my immediate resignation,” the longtime Flint resident appointed to oversee the water switch wrote in a statement. “With the city engaged in transition and working to regain public trust, I believe that now is the right time for me to step down from this position.”

It’s hard to argue that elected and appointed officials didn’t majorly drop the ball on a lot of levels. Whether that’s the result of negligence, malintent or political weakness, people disagree. Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor, says it was the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s job to ensure the city managed the switch appropriately. Glasgow, the utilities manager, said the state told him to take two particularly high samples off his report. “They instructed me to take it off the report,” he told Michigan Radio in October. “I don’t know that I can give you a good enough answer to tell you why they decided to remove it from the report.” The house those samples came from? LeeAnne Walters’.

Walters said the city was also padding its reporting with loopholes in the federal Lead and Copper Rule that allowed the city to pre-flush the water for five minutes before taking a sample and to use narrow-mouthed bottles that required a slower water stream and wouldn’t show accurate lead readings. She said those loopholes must be closed, and she’s already lobbying government officials to do so. A Detroit pastor recently filed an unsuccessful petition with the state Board of Canvassers to get a proposal on the ballot to recall Snyder for his failure to intervene in the water crisis. Several lawsuits have also been filed, including one in which Mays is listed as a complainant and another class action suit against Snyder, Walling and 10 other state and local officials, including Croft and Glasgow.

“What (we) would say is that we’re focused on moving forward and ensuring public health and clean, safe drinking water,” Snyder’s press secretary Sara Wurfel told The Flint Journal after the filing. “The governor has outlined a detailed multiple step action plan for both immediate, mid and long term.”

No resignations are going to alleviate the scars left by lead. But as finely woven as this issue is — with complicated timelines, players and literal chemical equations — maybe it’s actually pretty simple. Government officials messed up big time, and a majority Black city with some of the state’s poorest residents had to pay for it. No matter how you spin it, public policy failed. Officials did not serve the people they had promised to protect.

I thought about what Walters said at her kitchen table when I asked her whether she thought the mayor didn’t step in because he didn’t want to or because he didn’t have enough power to do anything.  “That’s a loaded question,” she told me. “I’ve debated that with people many times. I always get the, ‘Well, in politics…’ Well I don’t want to hear about politics. Every politician has a human side, and I don’t care what the politics of it is. Knowing that children were being poisoned, you stand up and you do what’s right, and if you don’t do that, then you don’t deserve to hold the position that you have. You are there because the people put you there. You should be doing what your citizens need to do. Even if you don’t have the power to make a change, you have a voice, you stand with your people.”

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters demonstrates the slow water stream used by the the city to pad its federal Lead and Copper tests in her mother's kitchen on Nov. 6, 2015.

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters demonstrates the slow water stream used by the the city to pad its federal Lead and Copper tests in her mother's kitchen on Nov. 6, 2015.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

 

Beyond all the blame passing, if Flint residents can’t expect and trust that our drinking water — a resource people literally can’t live without — will be clean and safe, then who and what can they trust? I would imagine that’s what a lot of folks in Flint are thinking through when they wake up to brush their teeth or wash their faces before bed. And that has incredible ramifications.

“I think there’s a serious trust issue in this community,” Hanna-Attisha said. “We’re in 2015, we’re in the middle of the Great Lakes and we don’t have access to safe drinking water. And we trust that our government regulates these things. There’s rules that will ensure that public health is protected. It’s mind-boggling that it’s not. And if these rules are not going to be strengthened or enforced, then the public needs to take it on their own to make sure that they have access.”

In Flint, change occurred when residents, not public officials, called foul. “Our residents were complaining for months and months that their water was brown, it smelled bad, it tasted bad, there was E. coli in it and in other communities with louder, more affluent voices, it wouldn’t have lasted this long,” Hanna-Attisha said.  

I asked Mays if she thought this would have happened in a place like Bloomfield, Ann Arbor or Farmington Hills, the city where I’m from. With a median household income of $24,834, Flint is a city where 41.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line. She cut in before I could finish. “No.”

“People don’t want to acknowledge that there’s been a problem,” Shariff said. “This isn’t like a hurricane where stuff is happening that you have no control over. This isn’t an act of god.”

Mays interrupted her. “This problem is man-made.”

Though the problem was finally illuminated, it was not by government regulators, health officials or elected leaders, but by regular people like Mona Attisha-Hana, Melissa Mays and LeeAnne Walters. Attisha-Hana is a pediatrician. Mays does PR for a radio station. Walters is a stay-at-home mom. The community forced action from the city and state. Sure, residents acted with the interests of their own kids in mind, but also seem to have been driven by something bigger: by a sense that they owed something to their neighbors.

I wonder whether the dynamic in Flint — where the community was forced to serve as sole government watchdog — will simply become the new paradigm there, or whether the events of the last two years will spur some kind of wake-up call reverberating through city halls, water treatment plants, statehouses and governor’s mansions all across the country.

The city is retrofitting the plant for its eventual use with the KWA pipeline.

The city is retrofitting the plant for its eventual use with the KWA pipeline.
Ruby Wallau/ Daily

 

Future in Flint

For Mays, the switch back to Detroit water hasn’t changed much in her day-to-day life. The family still runs all their drinking water through a blue filter they keep on the fridge’s top shelf. The corrosive river water likely wore away the phosphate coating on the city’s lead pipes — and that could take years to build back up again. There are also the physical markers left by lead.

“Well now, my kids got to get tutors,” Mays said on Halloween, as her kids prepared their costumes in the next room over. “I talked to my son’s teacher this week and he’s struggling in algebra, something he did great in before all this. My youngest, same thing. My middle child, has since he was younger, they’ve always wanted to bump him up, bump him up. He’s got his first C and I’m beyond furious. Not to mention the physical things. My oldest has two holes in his teeth, on the smooth sides. That doesn’t happen unless your teeth and crumbling from the inside out and the dentist said that’s because of the lead poisoning. And they’re all adult teeth, so what’s he supposed to do, get dentures? And then the fact that my son fell off his bike and he had two buckle fractures on his wrist from catching himself, just falling over. That means his bones are weak. He complains all the times about how his bones hurt. ‘My back hurts, my leg hurts, Mom.’ Because you have severe bone pain with lead poisoning and I’ve got the same thing.

“I feel horrible. I want to help them, and there’s nothing I can do as a mother and that infuriates me because people did this to us, people allowed it to continue to happen, they didn’t speak up. The citizens who are sick spoke up and that’s not our job, but it’s become our lives and there’s people worse off than me who can’t afford the medications, can’t afford the extra doctors.”

Hanna-Attisha said the costs of Flint’s water debacle will have ripple effects decades and generations down the road.

“When the kid is 5, they’re going to need special education, when that kid is 10, they’re going to get an ADHD diagnosis and have behavior problems,” Hanna-Attisha told me during one of our telephone conversations. “And when that kid is 16, they’re going to have problems with the criminal justice system. Imagine what that does to an entire population. So we have just shifted the entire population curve — their IQ curve. We’ve lost all of our high-achieving 130 kids who are going to go to U-M, who are going to come up with the next cure for cancer and we have now tons more kids with low 70 range who need more remedial services. As a population, it is absolutely damning. The state thinks they solved the problem when they went back to Detroit water. The money they gave is a down payment. This is a long-term problem.”

“Those are dreams derailed,” Shariff told me. “Because people have hopes and aspirations and because being exposed to lead and copper, they’re going to have to create a new paradigm.”

Whether lead poisoning will necessarily land a whole generation of kids in jail, it’s hard to know. But a lot of the problems wrought by Flint’s water crisis aren’t going to fade away easily. Their appearance in The New York Times, and on the policy agendas of government officials very well might, but the physical and emotional ramifications will likely linger for a long time. Walters, who recently relocated to Virginia but returns to Flint to keep stoking the fight for clean water, isn’t letting her kids drink the tap water in their new home. Not until it’s tested, at least. Even outside of Flint, one of her sons has started asking whether the water is safe to drink each time he wants to drink a glassful.

By 7:00 on Halloween, the rain wasn’t letting up on Calumet Street, and it was starting to get dark. Mays asked if we wanted to walk with her for a while longer. Mayor Walling, who lives a couple blocks over on Court Street, was up for re-election on Tuesday, and Mays had plenty of door hangers to hand out for that cause, too. I was hungry and needed to go to the bathroom, so we declined. I didn’t want to do any of those things in Flint, in the city where the water had been poison.

We got in the car, set the GPS for home, and left Calumet. We left the Mays family, the trick-or-treaters, the Flint River and the whole city behind us. Our Chevy barreled down U.S.-23 toward Ann Arbor — where that night I would turn on my faucet to wash my hands, fill my lazily cleaned pots with water, rinse off dishes stained with Prego and then let the shower’s hot water pour over my face, settling into the metal drain below my bare feet. I envisioned the water rushing through the walls and then under the city’s streets, houses and parking lots, moving through the pipes like some kind of trick-or-treat ghost.