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5 years after the Flint lead crisis started, some residents still don't trust the quality of their tap water

April 25, 2019; 3:18 PM

In the wake of the water crisis that began plaguing Flint, Michigan, five years ago on April 25, longtime resident Bob Brown considered his family fortunate enough to have been able to replace all of their home's pipes that were contaminated by lead.

"The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a standard that anything above 15 parts per billion with lead is dangerous," Brown, the associate director for Michigan State University's Center for Community and Economic Development, told AccuWeather. "Our house has tested out at 200 parts per billion. So, we were effectively all lead poisoned in my house."

The family's home had galvanized steel pipes, so the corrosive elements of the water, which was now coming in from the Flint River after the switch from water in Detroit in 2014, pitted the pipes. The lead particles then fell into those pits, contaminating the water every time it passed through.

Today, the house has two water filters - one large filter in the basement that connects to the kitchen and another that goes into the bathroom.

Flint bottled water - AP Photo

In this Feb. 5, 2016 file photo, volunteers load a vehicle with bottled water at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, in Flint, Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Despite the replaced pipes and whole-house filters, if you ask Brown if he regularly drinks his tap water, he'll tell you, "I don't, really. I just have a hard time doing that, so I'm still drinking a lot of bottled water."

Brown is not alone in his lack of trust in the safety and quality of Flint's tap water, even after former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced the end of the city's free bottled water program last year, stating that testing found the levels of lead in Flint's water were below the federal limit and that the city's water quality was "well within the standards."

A number of other Flint residents still continue to use bottled water, even if it means waiting for lengthy periods of time behind other vehicles at local water distribution sites for a chance to load up their trunks.

"That's a hard thing to get past, saying, ‘oh, they say it's safe now, so just drink the water,' because they said it was safe before," Brown said. "Putting that glass under that tap just freaks me out, because that's what I did, and that's what poisoned me and my family."

The city has been in the long process of rectifying the issue. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced in December 2018 that contractors had been checking and replacing thousands of service lines connecting to the city water mains, according to Michigan Radio.

"A lot of the infrastructure has been replaced, and a lot of the water is drinkable now, but a lot of it hasn't been," Ruth Goodrich, a former Flint resident whose family relocated to the suburbs one year after the city switched its water source, told AccuWeather. "People will defend the situation saying that water is testing safe now, but that's a small sample size, and every house will have a different level of lead in the water depending on the pipes leading to that particular home."

Flint's water crisis history

After the state of Michigan took over Flint's finances in 2011, the city announced the construction of a new pipeline that would carry water to Flint from Lake Huron, according to CNN. In the meantime, Flint began using water from the Flint River in 2014 while construction took place, and not long after the switch, locals reported the strange smell, taste and look of the brownish water pouring from their faucets.

Goodrich, who eventually left Flint as a result of the water problems, recalled the discolored water and rashes on her skin after showering. "That summer, we had several boil water notices because of a Legionella concern, which has also been an ongoing issue, so there were several weeks where we didn't drink the water," she said. After that, she purchased a Brita filtered pitcher for her family, although she said she was unsure how effective it was against protecting them from lead.

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City officials found levels of coliform bacteria in the city's water in August and September 2014. A month later, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality blamed the bacteria's presence on cold weather, aging pipes and Flint's population decline.

A Legionnaires' disease outbreak 2014 and 2015 also killed 12 people in Flint and made at least 87 others sick. Scientists determined that low chlorine levels in the municipal water system led to the summertime outbreak, and Legionella and other waterborne bacteria are known to bloom in warmer weather. "That summer, as cases of Legionnaires' disease surpassed historical averages, so too did the number of pneumonia deaths," according to data from PBS's Frontline.

Almost five years since the crisis began, Judge Judith Levy ruled that Flint residents can sue former Gov. Snyder, as residents asserted that he "violated their right to bodily integrity by repeatedly doing nothing as Flint used corrosive water that released lead from old pipes," according to the Detroit Free Press.

"I think that the [former] governor and other local elected officials from the state should be held accountable," Brown told AccuWeather. "This is a crisis that they created, and it has been a crisis they stonewalled everything on."

The Water Box - 501cTHREE

Men load up water jugs from the Water Box mobole filtration system at First Trinity Baptist Church in Flint, Michigan. (Photo/501cTHREE)

Flint's future

More than 20,000 service lines have been inspected in Flint since 2016 as the city continues to work to inspect and replace just about all of the city's lines. Meanwhile, residents received thousands of free water bottles on April 22 as nonprofit organization Pack Your Back continues to help in the water crisis relief efforts.

Also recently, Just Water Foundation co-founders Jaden Smith and Drew FitzGerald partnered up to bring clean water to Flint via the innovative Water Box. Through 501cTHREE, a coalition of engineers and activists serious about deploying technologies around energy, food and water impact, deacons at Flint's First Trinity Baptist Church are able to revamp how they distribute water to their community. In 2015, the church received 1.8 million water bottle donations - but since then, the donations have begun to diminish.

"This year, maybe if they're lucky, they'll be the recipients of maybe 500,000 bottles of water, and that's just not sustainable," FitzGerald told AccuWeather. "It's just going down and down, because donations are down, Flint's not in the news, yet the problem persists. The lead and pipe contamination persist."

The Water Box, a mobile water filtration system, allows Flint residents to fill up jugs of water with filtered and tested clean water. The church deacons have been trained to test and report the water's results. Daily tests for lead and microbiological contaminants are conducted and reported weekly, and anyone can view the results online. In just over 20 days of operation, Flint's first Water Box has proven successful.

The next phase will involve three additional Water Boxes heading to Flint - but this time, the residents will have a hands-on opportunity to build the systems themselves.

"We'll have the parts all together in a truck in Detroit, but we're going to assemble them in Flint, and we're going to assemble them very openly with engineering students that are in the community and also constituents that are going to use these boxes so that there's more participation from the community," FitzGerald said. "In this go-around, they're actually part of the assemblage of these boxes. To have a community participating in not only testing the water, but the construction of the solution of the water, is great."

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