FLINT, Mich. — Life over the past months has changed dramatically for Alaya Smith, her fiancé and their 2-year-old son, Amarus Jones.
They live in fear of the water.
Consequently, Smith no longer uses regular water for showers or to wash dishes or to drink or to wash her hands.
“When I get up, I have to make dish water,” said Smith, 22, a home health worker. “I use bottled water for that.”
Everything related to water, the world’s source of daily sustenance, is different. Instead of water from the faucet, she and her family have been drinking a dozen 16-ounce bottles of water daily, and use another 20 each day for dishwashing, cooking, bathing and brushing their teeth.
And now, because of the water, her son’s future may have been robbed from him.
Blood tests three months ago, she said, revealed that Amarus had elevated levels of lead in his body, which cripple a child’s brain development and growth rate. “It is most likely the result of exposure from the city’s water,” she said. Lead poisoning may eventually affect a child’s memory, language and motor skilles, and cognitive skills.
Smith and her family are experiencing what Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents have been enduring daily for months. Lead contamination in the city’s water system has made daily activities that the rest of the country take for granted hazardous and left residents unsure of what adjustments are neccesaary to their daily lives to keep from becoming ill.
Flint residents are advised to consume only filtered and bottled water for activities like drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth. Washing their hands and taking a shower is now problematic.
The city’s drinking water became dangerous in April 2014 when the city changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River, which city officials failed to treat with corrosion inhibitors. Consequently, lead from water pipes has contaminated the water.
In October of 2015, the city switched back to Detroit water, but the water is still unsafe.
In January, the city declared a state of emergency, and soon after, President Barack Obama declared Flint a federal emergency.
Just getting water in Flint is a daily concern. Residents can pick up free water from one of the city’s distribution sites or from religious organizations and others who hand out free water.
Individuals and groups around the country have also been bringing or sending water to Flint, including Howard University students who spent their spring break there instead of on a beach. Filmmakers Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay participated in a #JusticeForFlint benefit concert through Coogler’s Blackout for Human Rights.
Smith said she gets the water from friends and family because she does not have transportation to pick up water from the various distribution centers. Smith said she hopes using bottled water for bathing will reduce the rashes and dry spots she and her son have developed over the past year.
“I boil it in pots for the tub,” she said. “I know some people who aren’t using them, but I am. Now, I’m so used to not running the faucet.”
Since news of the water contamination broke, many residents have questioned whether the water is safe enough to bathe in.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose work helped to expose the contamination, has advised families that children should take only quick showers in reduced heat to decrease the concentration of lead.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has seen an increased number of skin irritation and rashes reported by residents and doctors since the beginning of the crisis. Jennifer Eisner, the department’s public information officer, says there is no evidence that they are related to the water.
“Lead is not absorbed the same way through the skin as consumption,” Eisner said. “At this time, the scientific evidence that we have supports that showering is safe.”
However, Smith’s homebound neighbor, Jayne Cramer, 56, and her daughter, Tiffany Triplett, don’t believe her. The mother and daughter, both of whom have liver cancer, said they tested positive for elevated levels of lead and have had incidents of itchy rashes. Though their doctors have not confirmed that their rashes were a direct result of the contaminants in the water, they believe the water is the culprit.
“It has to be the lead,” Triplett said.
Lead poisoning has added to Alaya Smith’s concerns and fears about Amarus, who now requires biweekly doctor’s visits.
“I’ve been real concerned about brain damage, because he’s really smart,” Smith said. “I pray a lot.”
Tatyana Hopkins is a reporter for the Howard University News Service.