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In Flint, public trust poisoned by toxic drinking water crisis

January 20, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT
In Flint, Michigan, toxic drinking water has become a federal emergency. For a year and a half, residents were consuming water contaminated by lead, despite repeated claims from state health officials that everything was fine. That revelation has led to a chorus of outrage, particularly for the young children who have suffered irreversible damage. William Brangham reports.


FLINT, Mich. — The man-made water crisis in this working class town about 70 miles north of Detroit has been years in the making and is only now drawing national attention. For 18 months, residents of the city unknowingly drank water contaminated with lead, a known neurotoxin. Flint’s water became contaminated when local officials, in an effort to save money, switched the city to a different water source in April 2014. But it was only in early January of this year that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for the city. President Obama followed suit last weekend, declaring a federal emergency.

But doctors, residents and a coalition of pastors raised alarm bells long before. Late last summer, one pediatrician — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha — pulled blood data of children treated at her hospital to measure their lead levels. What she discovered was alarming. Levels of lead in the children’s blood was double — in some cases triple their prior levels. Lead damage is irreversible, and its effects include developmental delay, irritability, aggression and learning problems.

Now, government officials and politicians are attempting to get to the bottom of how this was allowed to happen and what to do going forward. Flint’s 100,000 residents are picking up lead testing kids, drinking bottled water donated from across the country and filtering their tap water until an anti-corrosion agent has time to build up scales on the aging lead pipes peppered throughout the city, thus stopping the leaching of lead into the water.

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

GWEN IFILL: Truth be told, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a story that has been unfolding for years, and has only recently begun attracting regional attention. But now the massive lead contamination of the city’s drinking water is very much on the national radar.

Children in Flint now have double and in some cases triple the levels of lead in their blood, and a federal emergency was declared last weekend.

Today, in Detroit, President Obama addressed the troubles in Flint.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids’ health could be at risk. It is a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to our people and that we together provide as a government to make sure that public health and safety is preserved.


GWEN IFILL: In fact, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has apologized, and pledged to take new steps to protect the community. Snyder himself is under increasing pressure to detail what his administration knew, and when.

And in Flint, there’s plenty of anger and questions over who is to blame.

The NewsHour’s William Brangham is just back from Flint with this report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is how bad it’s gotten.

WOMAN: A case of water.

WOMAN: A case of water for this house. Did she get a filter?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In Flint, Michigan, the sheriff’s department is going door-to-door, handing out bottled water and filters.

Fire stations are now water distribution centers. The National Guard’s been deployed, and last night in his state of the state address, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder heard to apologize.

GOV. RICK SNYDER (R), Michigan: To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight, as I have before, I am sorry, and I will fix it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why? Because, for a year-and-a-half, despite repeated claims from officials that everything was fine, people in Flint were drinking water poisoned with lead, a toxin that causes irreversible damage to the human body.

KIM STREBY, Flint Resident: It’s every kid on the block, it’s every baby on the block, it’s everybody, every old person.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of Kim Streby’s two sons, like potentially thousands of other kids in Flint, has elevated levels of lead in his blood.

KIM STREBY: I was absolutely disgusted to think that we are paying an enormous price for water that is dangerous, that we can’t use.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The crisis began five years ago, because the city of Flint was trying to save money. This majority black city has been in an economic tailspin for decades, ever since General Motors cut production here. Forty percent of Flint’s 100,000 residents live in poverty.

In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder turned near total control of Flint over to a series of emergency managers. They began major cost-cutting, including a decision to try and save $5 million by switching Flint’s water supply.

Officials decided said they wanted to get water from Lake Huron, which is 80 miles to the east of us, but that pipeline wasn’t going to be finished for two more years. And so, in the interim, they decided they were going to get their water from right here, from the Flint River.

But as soon as the riverwater began flowing into Flint in April of 2014, red flags popped up. The water smelled bad, and it flowed in a startling array of colors. E. coli and other bacteria were discovered, followed by chemicals that can cause liver and kidney problems. In the fall of 2014, the local GM plant stopped using Flint water because it was corroding their auto parts.

RHONDA KELSO, Flint Resident: I mean, you can see the particulates in it. See it floating? See the brown stuff in it?


RHONDA KELSO: Yes, that’s in our — my daughter’s body.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lifetime Flint resident Rhonda Kelso, like thousands of other residents, soon discovered there was also poisonous lead in the water. The whole problem occurred because the Flint River corroded the city’s old lead pipes, leaching the toxic metal into the water supply. Kelso’s 12-year-old daughter, Kaylynn (ph), who’s already developmentally delayed and hearing impaired, has now tested positive for lead in her blood.

RHONDA KELSO: They kept telling us something was safe, and it was revealed that it wasn’t safe. We had to rely on outside agencies to let us know that the water was poison. And we already knew it was, but we had to prove it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the people who helped prove it was one of Kaylynn’s doctors, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She’s the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA, Director of Pediatric Residency, Hurley Medical Center: When pediatricians hear anything about lead, we stand up straight and we freak out, because we know lead. And lead is a potent, known, irreversible neurotoxin.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Late last summer, Dr. Hanna-Attisha tried to get county and state data on how much lead Flint’s kids had been absorbing into their blood, but she hit roadblocks. So she then pulled data on roughly 1,700 kids from her own hospital and other local pediatricians.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: We didn’t sleep. We did this right away. This was the fastest research project I have ever done, because of kind of the public health community implications.

There was one neighborhood, one specific ward of a city where the percentage of lead poisoning actually tripled. It went from about 5 percent of kids to over almost 16 percent of kids who were tested who had elevated blood lead levels.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: She released her findings at a news conference last September, but her data was dismissed by state health officials.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: We were attacked. So, we were told that we were unfortunate researchers, that we were…


DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Unfortunate researchers, that we were causing near-hysteria.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But two weeks later, officials acknowledged her findings were correct. And, separately, researchers at Virginia Tech had also confirmed high levels of lead in Flint’s water.

This contamination could’ve been avoided if officials had only added an anti-corrosion agent to the water. In fact, federal law requires it. But they didn’t do it in Flint, and no one has fully explained why.

DR. LAWRENCE REYNOLDS, President, Mott Children’s Health Center: It’s something that no parent would accept. It’s something no city, county, or state government should accept. And there’s no way it can be justified.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Lawrence Reynolds is a pediatrician and president of Mott Children’s Health Center. He says lead causes a litany of problems for kids, among them, delayed mental development, irritability, aggression and learning problems.

DR. LAWRENCE REYNOLDS: If you have seen those I.Q. curves where there’s the big hump and the small tails, 5 percent on either end, what lead exposure does is it shifts the curve to the lower I.Q. score, so we will have more kids with lower I.Q. and perhaps more children who will have learning problems and require services. But then start multiplying these things by thousands and imagine what a school district has to deal with.

MAYOR KAREN WEAVER, Flint: We’re talking about a whole generation of 5 and under.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Newly elected Mayor Karen Weaver campaigned on fixing the water crisis, and shortly after taking office and with limited powers, she declared a state of emergency, trying to get her city some help.

MAYOR KAREN WEAVER: People said that was something that couldn’t be done, but I said that let them tell us no. Let them tell the people of Flint that we don’t deserve these financial resources, these supports and these services for our families.

KIM STREBY: We don’t live in Third World conditions, where we should have safe drinking water, and we don’t.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Kim Streby’s two sons are Ronan, who’s 13, and Jude, who’s 11. He’s the one whose blood test came back with elevated lead levels.

So you guys had been drinking with it, cooking with it, brushing your teeth in it, taking baths in it, 100 percent?


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And then when you found out that there was something wrong with that water, how did you feel about that?

RONAN STREBY: I felt kind of scared, like, to know that I was using this water for pretty much everything, and then I found out that it could be dangerous.

JUDE STREBY: I was kind of grossed out, because imagine you drinking water for a year and knowing that there’s something that can be life-threatening.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As a parent, I couldn’t imagine the feeling that for over a year-and-a-half my kids were drinking water that somebody should’ve known was poisonous.

KIM STREBY, Flint Resident: There are no words. I don’t know what to say. It’s anger, frustration. And you wonder what’s next.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At least three different class-action lawsuits have now been filed, blaming local and state officials, even the governor, for negligence.

Last night in Lansing, a crowd gathered outside the capital, demanding Governor Rick Snyder resign for his role in the crisis. Inside, Snyder focused his speech on Flint and pledged state officials would do all they could to fix the problem.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you, federal, state and local leaders, by breaking the trust you placed in us.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But those assurances aren’t enough for Rhonda Kelso. She’s signed on to one of those class-action lawsuits.

RHONDA KELSO: Oh, they think that we’re a permanent underclass and they think that we’re uneducated and ignorant and that we are the most violent city in America, and people want to dispose of people like that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Flint, as you know, is a majority black community, and when we look at who is exposed to lead around the country, those are also majority black communities.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you think that that’s part of what’s also going on here?

DR. LAWRENCE REYNOLDS: Speaking to me, as a person of color and as a resident of the city of Flint, I will ask the other question: If this were a Grand Blanc, Michigan, Bloomfield Hills, St. Joseph, Michigan, which are mostly white, middle-class, would we have had the same response if there was a water issue?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And what do you think?

DR. LAWRENCE REYNOLDS: There would’ve been a completely different response. It would have been a more timely response, and those complaints would’ve been taken as legitimate.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The city of Flint has stopped using the Flint River as its source, and corrosion control is now being used. People from across the United States have been donating tens of thousands of bottles of water, and more National Guard troops have arrived to help distribute them.

KIM STREBY: I love this city and I love the people in this city and it’s a great city. And this water situation is just absolutely devastating to me, but it isn’t the definition of the city.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Flint’s better than that.

KIM STREBY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Flint, Michigan.