FLINT, Mich. — Shanice Ollie is 18 weeks pregnant with her third child, so she’s not taking any chances. No matter what city health officials say, she will not drink, cook, do dishes or wash with “lead water,” which is how people here now refer to the tap water delivered to their homes.
“They’re saying it’s O.K. to shower in it, and it’s fine for dishwashing and clothes, but I don’t believe them,” said Mrs. Ollie, 31, motioning toward her cluttered kitchen, where cases of bottled water were stacked by the counter and three gargantuan garbage bags were overflowing with empty bottles for recycling. “They knew for a whole year and didn’t do anything about it. I can’t risk it.”
While the water crisis is a public health disaster for everyone in Flint, it presents an especially daunting challenge for pregnant women and parents of young children, who absorb more lead than adults and are especially vulnerable to the effects on their developing brains and nervous systems. Six months after families here first learned the water supply in this poverty-stricken community was heavily contaminated with lead, the crisis continues to exact an exhausting daily toll on family life.
Local fire stations stock the water, but residents have to pick it up and cart it home every day or every other day. Families go through prodigious amounts of bottled water: A family of four can easily use up a case of 40 half-liter (16.9-fluid-ounce) bottles in a 24-hour-period — just for drinking and cooking. While health officials say the water is safe for bathing, laundry and dishwashing, many families don’t trust the advice.
Mrs. Ollie has trained her sons, 6-year-old Kingston and 4-year-old Jase, to take sponge baths using microwaved bottled water — no more playing in the tub. They must also use bottled water to brush their teeth. After dinner, she uncaps and empties dozens of pint-size bottles of water into a large pot that she heats on the stove to wash dishes. On weekends, she and her husband drive the kids and all the laundry to Mrs. Ollie’s parents’ home in Lansing, Mich., to shower and wash up.
“It’s like living in a third-world country, right here in America,” Mrs. Ollie said. “I’m very angry. But what can you do? You have to keep living your life,” she added as she rinsed out the blender used to make smoothies for breakfast. “There goes three bottles of water right there.”
Even before the water was contaminated, raising healthy children and keeping them from harm was no easy task in a city where the median household income is less than $25,000 a year and the rate of violent crime is among the highest in the nation. Many families live on streets where every third or fourth house is boarded up, and in many strip malls, the only store open for business is the liquor store.
Children here start off at a disadvantage — one in seven babies is born prematurely, and lead can increase rates of preterm birth and low birth weight. High-school graduation rates in the city are low, and fewer than 12 percent of residents are college educated.
And then last fall, health department officials told residents to stop drinking the city tap water because it contained high levels of lead, a neurotoxin that can take a devastating toll on overall health and cognition.
Health officials are urging parents to test their children’s blood-lead levels and beef up their diet with foods rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C, which may blunt the body’s absorption of lead. But blood tests measure only lead exposure within the last 30 days, not the body burden of lead that has already settled in bones, soft tissue and the brain, said Dr. Carl R. Baum, a professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine who is an expert on lead exposure.
Doctors have little advice about how to reduce the harm already done: There is no way to reverse the effects of lead, which affects every organ system. Children under the age of 6 are thought to be most vulnerable, Dr. Baum said.
Dr. Jeanne Conry, an obstetrician and gynecologist who is an expert on environmental exposures during pregnancy, said, “Our guidelines weren’t written for this level of exposure.” With so many unknowns, researchers are eager to study Flint, she added.
While some families hope to move away from Flint, most people here can’t afford to leave the cheap rentals and their support networks, and those who own homes know they aren’t likely to sell them. Many are also contending with other problems born of poverty, like disability, unemployment and substance abuse.
Christina and Adam Murphy, who have five children between them, including a newborn, learned their water was heavily contaminated with lead after one of their dogs got sick and another dog gave birth to a stillborn puppy.
Tests on the water in their home revealed lead levels of thousands of parts per billion, way over the allowable limit of 15 parts per billion, and now they are worried about the effects on everyone in the family. A son from Mr. Murphy’s previous marriage was recently diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, and the couple’s 3-year-old daughter has been irritable lately. An older daughter has been having severe abdominal pain, which can also be caused by lead, while another son is having difficulties at school for the first time.
Mr. Murphy himself, a 36-year-old millwright, has been unable to work for over a month because of unexplained weakness and fatigue. He has lost several teeth and has been dropping things, and worries about his memory. Mr. Murphy is being evaluated to see if he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., which has also been linked to lead exposure.
And Mrs. Murphy, like many parents in this area, spends an inordinate amount of time emptying bottles of water into pots and bowls, where it can be boiled or microwaved for bathing, washing dishes and cooking for five children under the age of 10. “It’s like living in the 1800s,” she said.
Last fall, Magen Baker and her husband moved away from Flint to a suburb on a different water system, but they remain worried about their children, including a 10-month-old who has been hospitalized twice with pneumonia and an older daughter who has been coming home with teachers’ notes about misbehavior and having trouble getting her homework done.
Mrs. Baker, 30, who manages a salon at a J.C. Penney, has been breast-feeding her baby, but she drank and cooked with Flint’s contaminated water while pregnant and now worries the baby may have been exposed to lead, which can cross the placenta and has been found in breast milk.
After Luke Waid, 29, a laid-off aerospace welder, found out his baby girl Sophia had tested high for lead, a public assistance case manager threatened to call Child Protective Services and have Sophia removed from their home because of the lead exposure. Last fall, of course, the family and case manager learned it was the water.
Now Mr. Waid is suing state and city officials, hoping to have his daughter’s medical bills covered at the very least. “I come from a poor family,” he said. “I paid my taxes, and paid an awful lot for water, and they poisoned my child through the water.”