With all the talk about what went wrong and who’s to blame in regard to the water crisis in Flint, any mention of those who exposed the problem has quickly fallen away amongst all the outrage. But along the way, there have been several important actions taken, primarily by concerned women, who acted with conviction and courage, even as their experiences and observations were dismissed or disregarded. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, is probably the most well-known among those who fought to get local and state representatives to recognize the lead problem in the city’s water.
Another more prominent figure who helped reveal the toxicity of Flint’s water to the rest of the world is a woman named Lee Ann Walters. As the story goes, she began noticing health issues in her children in the summer of 2014, when her twin boys started to get red bumps on their skin each time they were given a bath. Then in November, when the water started flowing out brown, Walters decided stop using the tap water as much as possible. She really started wondering what was going on when, “In January 2015, Flint officials sent out a notice declaring that the city’s water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, the byproduct of a disinfectant used to treat the water,” as reported by Mother Jones magazine. “Over time, these chemicals can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system problems. The advisory warned that sick and elderly people might be at an increased risk, but it said the water was otherwise safe to drink.”
As everyone now knows, the water wasn’t safe to drink and it still isn’t, even a year after the city of Flint sent out that notice. It’s also been over year since trihalomethanes were detected in the water, and almost a year now since Lee Ann Walters first discovered that her home’s water supply was poisoning her children with lead. Between noticing the reactions that her entire family was having to their tap water, and the subsequent discovery of high levels of lead that the water department made, Walters began doing her own research and started talking with the EPA. This lead to the revealing investigation that was made by Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University.
The study lead by Edwards was received in much the same manner as Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s was by state officials, as his findings clearly showed there was problem with lead, whereas the city’s own testing did not. In an article published on MLive.com in September of 2015, Mr. Edwards explains the problem with the results that the city of Flint was obtaining:
“Among the problems Edwards claimed: The city never tested in areas known to be susceptible to high lead levels, never re-sampled homes in 2015 that were found to have high levels in 2014, and failed to notify residents when they did find problems with lead in the water of their homes.”
All this was set into motion by a concerned mother who simply did not accept the standard explanations of city officials and state leaders who didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the water in Flint. Who knows how much longer the lead-poisoned water would have continued to flow had Lee Ann Walters not sought out the answers she needed to help protect the health of her family. Thanks to courageous women like her and Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the problem was finally taken seriously enough that the city of Flint was finally hooked back up to the former Lake Huron water source that had previously supplied the city. But now the damage has been done, and it will take months, if not years, of more struggle, courage, and strength to combat the hubris and insolence that seems to have infected our leaders today.
Another little known band of women visited the state capitol to bring awareness to the Flint water problem back in October of 2015. The group called themselves Women Forward, and they took the message about Flint’s poisoned water straight to the Governor, just after he had ordered the water to be switched back Detroit’s supply lines. Although these activists were glad that the water source was changed, they had gone to Lansing to demand justice and were calling on Governor Snyder to declare a State of Emergency. Their request would later be fulfilled, when Snyder finally did make such a declaration on January 5, 2016, more than a year after Flint citizens such as Lee Ann Walter started noticing something was really wrong with the water.
It is unbelievable that the people of Flint have had endure such hardship for so long, and the mostly male leadership that should have responded promptly when issues started to arise, were mainly dismissive or unconcerned. Quick, decisive action and empathy are qualities that men in power often seem to lack, but thankfully there are still compassionate, caring women in our communities who are willing to question authority and fight for their loved ones.