FLINT, Mich. — First, Ida Nappier’s hair started falling out.
The nearly lifelong resident of Flint started noticing clumps of hair tangled in her comb or stranded on her pillowcase last fall, about six months after the city switched from buying water from Detroit’s system, which draws from Lake Huron, and began sourcing water from the Flint River.
Nappier, known to most as Jackie, always had thick hair, which she wore long during her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and later shoulder-length and feathered, Farrah Fawcett–style, during her years raising children and grandchildren in Flint. But suddenly she was losing her hair — and she was far from the only one. Across this shrinking Rust Belt city, residents’ hair and eyelashes began falling out. One woman confessed that she cried every time she cleaned the thick strands out of her shower drain.
At Nappier’s home, she and other family members continued to get sick, even though they heeded the series of boil-water advisories the city issued over the summer after E. coli and other bacteria were detected in the water system. Her daughter Glenda Colton returned to Flint from Ohio in the fall and promptly broke out in a rash across her neck and chest. In December and early January, Nappier’s grandchildren started vomiting and having diarrhea, she said, and they complained that their skin was itchy after showering. One day she ran a bath, and the water was the color of tea. The whole family switched to using bottled water for drinking, cooking and sometimes even bathing.
In January she and the rest of the city’s nearly 100,000 residents received a letter explaining that water testing revealed high levels of trihalomethanes, a group of chemicals known as THMs. Byproducts of the chlorination process, THMs have been linked to increased rates of cancer, kidney and liver failure and adverse birth outcomes. It later emerged that the city knew since the previous May that the THM levels were high — in some places, twice the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A few weeks later, Nappier returned home from the senior center where she volunteers and ate a bowl of beef vegetable soup her daughter had mistakenly prepared with tap water. By the next morning, she felt sick. Then she had to repeatedly leave church services to use the bathroom. A few days later, she was so dehydrated from constant diarrhea that she asked to be taken to the Hurley Medical Center.
THMs aren’t the only contaminant that has been detected in high levels in Flint’s drinking supply in the last year. Other residents have tested their water to find dangerous concentrations of lead and copper. Last summer and fall brought bacteria, including E. coli.
The most recent water test recorded THM levels below the threshold designated as unsafe by the EPA. However, residents quickly point out, these chemicals tend to fluctuate by season, and levels often spike in summer months. A recent report by the water giant Veolia, which was commissioned by the city for $40,000, recommended that Flint spend $3 million upgrading the treatment plant, retraining workers and installing a $1.5 million carbon filter. The filter would reduce the amount of chlorine needed to treat the river water, thereby decreasing THM levels.
Contamination in Flint’s water system is only part of the city’s water woes. The other issue is its financial cost to the city and its residents.
To justify the switch to the Flint River, emergency manager Jerry Ambrose regularly cites the high cost of buying water from Detroit. But if the city is saving $12 million a year, that windfall hasn’t been passed along to the city’s residents. The average household water bill is $140 a month, according to a 2014 analysis by The Flint Journal. The steadily rising costs have been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit since 2012.
For many of the city’s low-income residents, the water bills are so expensive, it’s impossible to buy additional water. In February, resident Jean Pugh was hospitalized for two nights for dizziness, headaches, diarrhea and nausea, which she believes was caused by tap water. But her $683-a-month fixed income barely covers the rent and utility bills. She lives alone, yet her monthly water and sewage bill is $70 to $80 — on top of a gas and electric bill that can run as high as $300.
Sometimes she receives store-bought jugs from a friend or from her church, Antioch Missionary Baptist, where each week one of the deacons warns the congregation not to drink the city water.
“He says it every Sunday, but what am I going to do?” Pugh asked. “It’s easy to say, ‘Stay away!’ But I’m thirsty.”
She disappeared to the kitchen and then re-emerged with a glass. “Last night I boiled this water, because I knew I had only three bottles left.”
At Ida Nappier’s house, the combined costs of store-bought and city water have pushed her in the direction of a different sort of financial precipice: tax foreclosure.
Sitting on her living room couch, overlooking her worn front yard, she riffled through a stack of water bills ($201 in February and $175 in March, despite not using tap water to drink or cook), payment receipts, the occasional shutoff warning and, finally, the property tax notices. “I used my tax money to pay my water bill,” she said.
Meanwhile, on the municipal level, the reality of life under financial management continues to impede residents’ attempts to end their city’s reliance on the Flint River water.
As Woodson learned, EPA protocol requires that a state first attempt to resolve a local contamination issue before the agency will intervene.
But as he found himself explaining to the EPA official on the telephone, the state is already involved. “We’re under emergency manager, and in order for us to go to Flint River water, Gov. [Rick] Snyder had to give the approval,” Woodson said.
“Oh, did he?” the official asked, sounding perplexed. “But didn’t the municipality ask to do that?”
“No, no,” Woodson responded. “The residents and City Council and the mayor had no say-so in this.”