FLINT, Mich. — A bottle of murky tap water — with swirling rust-colored pieces of sediment — still sits on Rhonda Kelso’s kitchen counter in Flint.
In August of this year, despite information from government officials suggesting the water in Flint was safe to drink, she was still skeptical of its quality. So she collected the sample from her tap.
When a group of Virginia Tech researchers tested Kelso’s water and discovered evidence of lead, Kelso, a 52-year-old stroke survivor, decided that was the last straw.
Now she’s part of a class-action lawsuit filed against Flint, the state of Michigan and various officials that claims the government is responsible for exposing tens of thousands of Flint residents to lead-contaminated water.
In December the mayor declared a state of emergency in Flint.
“The city of Flint residents — they are not people that are disposable. We just are not,” said Kelso, as tears welled in her eyes. “We’re not a permanent underclass.”
Before the discovery of lead in the water, Flint residents endured several months of irritating health problems, including hair loss and rashes, after the city started using the Flint River as a source for drinking water in April 2014.
For years, the community had sourced its water from Lake Huron by purchasing it from Detroit. The temporary switch was designed to save the cash-strapped city more than $3 million, but the corrosive nature of the Flint River did more harm than good.
Without adequate controls in place to protect the aging plumbing infrastructure throughout the city, the water started to eat away at the pipes. As a result, lead from the pipes leached into the water and worked its way into people’s homes.
Kelso, who uses a cane to get around, is most concerned for her 12-year-old daughter, Kaylynn, who is developmentally delayed and has a heart condition.
“It was almost a year before I got my own filter,” Kelso said. “So we were drinking the water. We were exposed. We were cooking with the water.”
In October, the state said it would provide water filters and water testing to Flint residents. It also pledged more than $9 million to help switch the Flint water system back to the Lake Huron source.
However, for a financially troubled city with nearly 42 percent living in poverty, the ongoing lead crisis is a mounting burden as people struggle to make ends meet.
An impact "we see later"
Amber Whitman uses bottled water by the gallon when she cooks dinner for her fiancé, her grandmother and her 7-year-old daughter.
Flint residents have been urged to use certified filters to protect themselves while the city and state continue to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the water for all Flint citizens is safe to drink.
Whitman, who is pregnant, has yet to install the government-provided filter on her faucet, so she uses water from a jug on macaroni-and-cheese night. It is an extra expense she is trying to manage while she’s not working.
The city of Flint residents – they are not people that are disposable; we just are not. We’re not a permanent under-class.
“We were already having trouble trying to purchase just food, and now what little assistance I had from the state has to completely go towards water,” she said. “In the meantime, our water bill — even though we’re not using it — is like $120 a month.”
Whitman said she uses food stamps to pay for the bottled water. Though health officials have said it is not dangerous to take showers, she isn’t taking any chances.
“We are no longer doing hot showers. It’s lukewarm or cool water to shower,” she said, saying she worries about the long-term effects of lead exposure on her little girl. “I think it would concern any parent because most of the damage that is caused from lead is irreversible.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the director of the pediatric residency program at Flint’s Hurley Hospital, said it's impossible to know the extent of the problem. She’s assuming every child in Flint has been exposed at some point, starting in April 2014 and until the water is safe again.
“The impact of lead poisoning we see later,” she said. “So, in five years, we’re going to have more kids who need early intervention and special education services. And in 10 years, there’s going to be more kids with ADHD diagnoses. And in 15 to 20 years, there’s going to be more kids with violent behavior … We don’t see the effects now.”