The kitchen sink in 37-year-old Melissa Mays' modest two-story house in Flint, Mich. looks like any other. But she said in Flint, water has become the enemy.
"Hot water condenses the metals and contaminants and releases them into steam. So then you breathe it in and you inhale it…it absorbs through your pores … like your feet. So that's why I don't allow hot showers. I had to send my husband to go get a case of water today … otherwise I'm not going to be able to make dinner," Mays said.
Flint is in a state of emergency.
Michigan's governor says the city attempted to save money by temporarily using the Flint River as a water source. But that corroded pipes, contaminating the water with lead and copper. Now the governor says there's been an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease near Flint. The National Guard is delivering bottled water there, and the federal government is investigating whether Michigan knowingly allowed residents to use contaminated water.
The Mays family has joined two lawsuits against the city and the state. Melissa Mays says her family spends roughly $100 dollars a week on bottled water now. They drink it, cook with it, and pour cups of it over their heads to bathe. But before they switched, they were using water out of the tap-and they started noticing shortly after that something was wrong.
"I got this big giant rash on my cheekbone. It was like a chemical burn … and turns out it was a chemical burn," she said.
But the biggest worry for her is her three sons, ages 11 to 17.
Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha began noticing last fall that the lead levels in the blood of some of Flint's children was double — sometimes triple — the amount it was before the water switch.
"And when pediatricians hear anything about lead we freak out. It affects your cognition, it lowers your IQ, and it affects your behavior. It's even been linked to criminality," Hanna-Attisha said.
She said even after Flint was forced to switch back to its original water source, the corrosive river water had already stripped away the coating protecting Flint's pipes.
"We're still drinking through, like, a lead-painted straw. And every so often a little bit of chip or scale is going to come off and get into the drinking water," she said.
The EPA says there's no safe lead blood level in children, and that kids six and younger are particularly vulnerable.
Melissa Mays said blood tests show her children have elevated lead levels. Their grades have slipped since the water switch.
"And I worry because they're gonna need tutors, 'cause I don't want them to just be set aside and saying 'Well okay…your IQ's a little lower.' No I want them to be where they were before this happened," Mays said.
The water began smelling bad and looking funny in April of 2014, right after the city changed to using the Flint River as a drinking source. That's when an unusual number of people began getting sick.
Medical bills began to mount for Mays and her children. She's still employed, and her husband is working two jobs seven days a week. But she said water is always on her mind now, and her children's, especially 11-year-old Cole.
"Hey Cole," Mays said to her son. "When we go to a restaurant or we go anywhere what's the first question that you ask them?"
Cole Mays responded: "Does it have any Flint water in it?"
Daily life in Flint has drained Melissa Mays' family savings. "We went through three water heaters and they're $500 a pop. And that was … that was it. 'Cause the rest of it's gone towards medication," she said.
And Mays says moving away from her house in Flint is not an option.
"We're not gonna be able to sell it for one, because it's not legal to sell your home with known copper and lead problems until you replace those problems," she said. So there's that thousands of dollars to do the service line and indoor plumbing. And yeah, nobody wants to buy a poison water house."
Instead Mays joined the two lawsuits. The family is a lead plaintiff in one of them, a class action suit, filed by attorneys working pro bono. The state won't comment on pending litigation.
"I blame the city of Flint, I blame the governor, everybody who had any hand in this, you know, to save money. But at the end of the day when I go to sleep, I cannot forget that I'm the one that handed the water to the kids," she said.
The true price for Flint's attempt to save money by using river water remains unclear. The full effects of lead poisoning often cannot be seen until five years after exposure.
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