In Flint, Mich., jobs have been scarce for years, but crime and foreclosures have been on the rise. Domestic violence and depression are household scourges, and a steady population decline has made the running of the city and even its long-term viability increasingly tenuous. As if these and many more problems were not enough, the city now confronts a crisis of water contamination of mind-numbing dimensions.
As an interim step to cheaper water service, in April 2015 the city began using the murky Flint River as its municipal water supply. The more corrosive river water was not properly treated, and its use has compromised lead piping all over the city. Residents have for months—by cooking, cleaning, eating and bathing—exposed themselves and, more catastrophically, their children to lead, a well-known neurotoxin. Even low levels of lead exposure can have developmental and neurological effects on children that last a lifetime. Compounding the initial error has been a failure at all levels of government to understand and respond to the crisis, in spite of efforts among a few individuals in government and health services to bring attention to the community’s unfolding unnatural disaster.
In a statement released on Jan. 20, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing called the suspected exposure of thousands of Flint children to lead “heartbreaking.”
Mary Stevenson is the director of Catholic Charities’ Center for Hope in Flint, one of the sites Catholic Charities is using to distribute bottled water in response to the crisis. This latest setback joins the list of challenges her clients have been facing.
Frustration with the behavior of city and state leaders is palpable across Flint, she says. The people of Flint have been receiving contradictory information and erroneous assurance for months now.
“It’s been disappointing; it’s been frustrating,” she says. “These are people with children; people trying to put life back together here. It’s been hard in a place where things have been hard for a long time.”
What she finds encouraging has been the response of members of the surrounding community, who have turned her office into a veritable warehouse of bottled water in recent days. “We have water coming in from all over the country,” she says. “People here are grateful for the help…. It’s nice to know we are not alone in the struggle.”
Her clients, many of whom walk to the center, have been carrying home cases of water. The heavy lifting and the walk in the dead of winter is a major challenge for some. The tap-water crisis has made even the most mundane tasks a challenge, from brushing teeth to cleaning a table. Everyone is learning how to be creatively conservative with drinking water. Stevenson makes sure that mothers going home with baby formula take gallons of water with them to use for their babies. Indeed the most worrisome aspect of the crisis is the still unknown repercussions for the city’s children.
“You can’t tell looking at a child today what impact the water has had or will have on their future,” she says. “It will just crush you thinking about what might happen.”
In his statement on the crisis, Bishop Boyea writes: “The City of Flint has undergone many trials in recent years. Often, its people have faced the temptation to lose hope, to surrender to despair. The water crisis again presents that temptation, but again the answer must be to find strength in the love of God and the support of men and women of good will.”