Flint crisis, four years on: what little trust is left continues to wash away

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LeeAnne Walters was one of the activists who brought Flint’s brown, lead-laden water to the world’s attention, thrusting plastic bottles of dingy liquid into camera lenses and the national consciousness.

Four years later, you might think things have improved in the Michigan city. But Walters is still bathing her kids in bottled water, which she heats on the stove in four separate pots and a plastic bowl in the microwave.

“I know as far as the lead in the water that’s OK, but it’s the lack of trust that was never rebuilt,” said Walters. “How do I put my kids in that, knowing they’ve suffered?”

Related: Flint’s water crisis: what went wrong

On Wednesday it is four years since the city’s water switched to the Flint river, without lead corrosion controls, prompting the public health crisis.

In the aftermath, Flint received presidential visits, millions of dollars in donations and government aid. It is the subject of scientific studies. It has a Netflix series, Flint Town. Walters has now won the Goldman Environmental Prize for activism, which comes with a $175,000 unrestricted prize. And, importantly, the state of the water is improving.

But, despite all this attention, regular people feel like little has changed since the crisis.

Debra Furr-Holden, a researcher at Michigan State University who received a five-year National Institutes of Health grant to study how to deliver health resources to Flint residents, said even though federal agencies flung themselves at the city, “the impact of their presence is not known or real for the residents”.

Rather, a paradox has taken hold.

Most attention directed at Flint goes to cleaning up the city’s water supply, an undeniably vital goal. But it also feels like a bizarre one in a city where many people are unlikely to ever drink another drop of tap water so long as they live.

“The biggest thing that people are not talking about is the psychological damage,” said Walters. “I’ve seen people go into full-on panic attacks, hyperventilating, trying to take a sip of water at a restaurant, and they just can’t do it. I know of a 17-year-old who is terrified to take a bath.” She added: “These things have not gotten better.”

Multiple government workers were criminally charged over the disaster. The city switched its water supply back to Detroit’s water, away from the Flint river. But for the roughly 100,000 people who live here, the damage is done.

The list of physical ailments is long. Flint resident Keri Webber’s daughter caught pneumonia-like legionnaire’s disease and has permanent lung damage. Her husband of 27 years suffered an eye stroke and has uncontrolled high blood pressure. Her daughters, variously, have kidney damage, fatty liver, anemia and lead-laden bones. Webber suffered a mini-stroke, where her memory was “fried”. When the crisis was at its worst, the family had 17 doctor’s appointments in five days.

Other Flint residents have had recurring skin rashes. Luster needed a hysterectomy after she developed debilitating abdominal pain during the crisis. There were so many miscarriages in Flint, University of Kansas economists found the fertility rate dropped by 12%, and fetal death shot up by 58%.

The mental scars are as tangible as the physical. Webber can only talk about water at a friend’s house – not in her family home – because her daughter has post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her daughter stopped her mother from doing dishes because she can’t stand the sound of running water; had carafes of water removed from restaurant tables, as anxiety peaked; and ripped fellow students backward from water fountains when they leaned in for a drink. Webber smacks her lips three times before she says this sentence, irritated: “We’ve been guinea pigs.”

Related: Flint activists still waiting as governor escapes fallout of water crisis

It is worth recalling that the switch to the Flint river may have caused lead contamination from pipes, but it was not the river’s only problem. As early as the 1930s, the fish died en masse in the river thanks to industrial pollution. High levels of bacteria, industrial waste and sewage were found in the river repeatedly over the next 90 years.

“Who can land on this earth and tell a Flint resident their water is fine?” said Gina Luster, a Flint Rising activist. “It’d have to be God.”

Some activists argue Flint residents should receive fully covered healthcare (one called it “FlintCare”). America is the world’s most expensive health system, and for anyone not receiving insurance through Medicaid, a government program for the poor, bills pile up quickly. Currently, 41.9% of Flint’s residents live in poverty.

In this March 21, 2016 file photo, the Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich. Michigan will close the last four locations where Flint residents have been getting free bottled water, filters, replacement cartridges and testing kits because the city's water quality has been below federal action levels for lead for nearly two years. © Carlos Osorio/AP Photos In this March 21, 2016 file photo, the Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich. Michigan will close the last four locations where Flint residents have been getting free bottled water, filters, replacement cartridges and… Flint Rising activists said healthcare is top on the list of three demands. On the date this week that officials switched their water supply, 25 April, four years ago, they planned to rally in the capital Lansing for this and other demands.

To be sure, Flint is a town divided. Friends have been ripped apart by lawsuits, testimony and endless lobbying.

Luster said during the crisis, activists were “sleeping on each other’s couches, feeding each other’s kids. Now, a lot of us can’t even be in the same room”. But even residents independent of Flint Rising said free healthcare is a “no-brainer”.

“I don’t think we should even be begging for insurance, it’s a no-brainer,” said Webber.

“If this were any other town … this would not have happened. They would have insurance,” she added. Webber has Medicare, the government-run health program for the elderly and disabled, but even that requires her to pay about 20% of costs.

Some Flint resident did receive Medicaid following the crisis, a common way for government to expand healthcare to families, usually following a natural disaster. Medicaid is a government run program for the poor and disabled.

“Even the notion that something else needs to be done to quantify the exposure is a waste of resources,” said Furr-Holden. She received a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how to improve the health of Flint residents, ranging from substance abuse to trauma.

“Water is not the worst thing that happened to Flint. Poverty and disinvestment are the worst things that happened to Flint,” said Furr-Holden. “What the water crisis did was bring to light all the other issues.”

If all Flint residents received fully funded health insurance, say, through an act of Congress, the best recent example would be the James Zadroga Act, which established health benefits for people who responded to, worked or lived near Ground Zero on 9/11.

Already, health officials in Flint have begun a “Flint Registry” to connect affected families to health services. New York City’s “9/11 Health Registry” is the largest in US history to track the health effects of a disaster.

For Walters, and many like her, the routine since sky-high lead levels were found in Flint’s water remains the same. Drive to the local supermarket to get water. Refill plastic gallon jugs with water not from Flint (the tap is next to boxes of water pitchers which filter lead). Do this a few times a week.

Walters’ husband lives in Virginia. Every two weeks, the whole family – LeAnne, her brother Stephen, her daughter’s boyfriend Matt, and sons Garrett and Gavin (twins, seven) – pile into the minivan to head to Virginia Beach. It’s a two-week visit. Then they head home.

Asked why she did not choose to move to Virginia – why deal with the headache and heartache of living in Flint – she is indignant.

“Because our work’s not done here,” she said, unflinching. She paused. Behind the false eyelashes she’s worn since Flint’s water caused hers to fall out, her eyes fill with tears. “Because these are my neighbors and my friends and family.” Because, she said: “You need to be able to fall apart.”

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