There is an incredible number of social and environmental issues being poorly addressed in America, perhaps few so serious as the current water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Activist Melissa Mays has been a loud voice amid the chaos, one sometimes inconvenient to government officials. But with her family and her community at risk amid one of the greatest environmental disasters in American history, she is absolutely dedicated to getting in the way of “business as usual” for the sake of her home and her neighbors.
Flint, Michigan, once thrived as the home of General Motors but faced a serious economic downturn once the company moved most of its manufacturing out of state, impacting revenue. Currently, the city faces an environmental emergency where residents cannot drink, cook, or reasonably utilize their own tap water for fear of lead poisoning. As of April 22, 2018, Flint has been without potable water for 1,458 days (over four years)—long after media presence has moved on to other, flashier stories.
The city, in an attempt to save money by switching water providers, began to utilize the Flint River as the primary source of water. Officials did not immediately test or treat the river water and residents began to speak out about the odd smell and color of the new water. Soon, E. coli and other bacteria were detected in the new water source. By January 2015, the city of Flint was found in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act and the following month, a city test found high lead content in the water provided to the homes of their citizens; there was no treatment plan in place at the city’s water treatment plant. Months later, hundreds of homes were tested and results proved there were serious levels of lead in the city water.
Mays told the National Resources Defense Council, “The first time we heard that they were thinking of switching to the Flint River, we laughed. We thought it was a joke. Because there’s a ton of cars in there, shopping carts, and we knew that industry had dumped in the river for 100 years and didn’t clean it up… we were shocked that we were actually going to be forced to drink from the Flint River. About a month later, people were complaining about orange and brown water.”
Flint is home to residents of all economic backgrounds, but the majority of its citizens are low-income and black, and women and children; more than 40% of households live below the poverty line. Women, including LeeAnne Walters and Sasha Avonna Bell, were the first to pursue legal action. They have led the fight for safe drinking water and women of color were among the first to speak out via organizations like We the People of Detroit. Though Melissa Mays is not a woman of color, she has become a de facto spokesperson on behalf of the people of Flint. A mother of three, she founded Water You Fighting For, dedicated to spreading awareness of the water crisis. Mays recruited scientists from Virginia Tech to perform independent water testing, which broke the Flint scandal into the national news cycle. She and other citizens are struggling to keep Flint in the public eye, highlighting the terrifying conditions they face daily. She told Salon magazine, “In Flint, the shower smells of chemicals. It burns your eyes, your nose. We have two shower head filters, and it still burns. If you get a rash, every time the water touches it, it burns all over again . . . I cut my finger cooking and I almost put my hand under the sink, and you have to stop because it burns like fire. But also there’s bacteria in there, which causes MRSA. We have a lot of skin infections… Your skin starts to peel off your face. We’re not even taking hot showers anymore because the bacteria and the cancer-causing byproducts are released into steam and you breathe it in.”
An estimated 12,000 children in Flint have been exposed to excessive amounts of lead, which can cause irreversible damage to developing brains; no level of lead exposure is considered safe for children. According to the Detroit News, between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of Flint third-graders testing as proficient in reading at their grade level dropped to 10.7% from 41.8%. Fetal death rates rose at staggering levels and the exposure was linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that caused the death of at least 12 people. The highest reported lead level in Flint was in 2015, at 13,00 parts per billion—more than 850 times the federal guideline.
Melissa Mays has personally suffered seizures, is developing cirrhosis of the liver, and says her teeth are rotten due to lead exposure; her family began developing muscle and joint pain, rashes, and their cat’s fur starting falling out in clumps. Once she began speaking out, she was met with immediate pushback and misogyny. As she told Salon, “One of the first times I’d ever gone to a city council meeting, I was talking about the water and how I was asking for an epidemiological study so we can tie in illnesses with what’s in the water, so people could actually get medical help.” She says that one city councilman asked if she was on her period. “…and I was unaware that my period caused science to fall out my mouth. Thanks. But back to the epidemiological study. This is crucial.”
In December 2015, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency of the levels of lead in the water. In January 2016, both Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and President Obama followed with their own declarations. The EPA issued an emergency order to take action. Flint’s water was tainted with known toxins for a year and a half, while untreated water was being drawn from the Flint River. As a result, lead leached into pipes that were once lead-free and from pipes into fixtures.
Filters and bottled water were provided to Flint citizens who still don’t trust their water sources. Water levels have improved and some lines to homes have been replaced, but over 12,000 homes still need new pipes. In March of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court approved two class-action lawsuits filed by residents of Flint, including one by Melissa Mays and other Flint parents. However, it was recently announced that residents will no longer receive free bottled water because the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has stated that Flint’s water quality “has been restored”. Those 12,000+ homes awaiting pipe replacements are expected to rely on water filters. Still, Mays and others remain hopeful that change will be made and corrupt officials will be held accountable. She told The Stir, “I’m proud of us who did the state’s job to find out the truth and demand justice. I’m proud of the sacrifices my family and many others have made to help people we have never met. I hope this is an example for citizens all over the U.S. that moms and dads can stand up for their families and force change.”
Lead photo credit: Mint Press News