Even As Levels Improve, Flint Residents Choose Bottled Water Over Tap

Dec 14, 2016
Originally published on December 14, 2016 9:27 pm

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., didn't start a year ago. For almost two years, officials told residents the water was fine when it wasn't.

Later the officials told residents to drink filtered water — unless you're a baby or pregnant — in that case drink only bottled water.

Then they said tap water is safe for everybody, as long as you have a filter.

But now lots of people in Flint don't believe anything officials tell them.

"Don't drink the city water. Don't drink Flint water, period," says Jennice Badon says, who lives in the city.

Data show that the Flint water system has improved in the year since a state of emergency was declared because of lead-contaminated drinking water.

It's good news for the families who've been relying on faucet filters and bottled water, but they aren't likely to stop using them in the foreseeable future.

Officials may say Flint's water is safe if filtered, but Badon uses bottled water for nearly everything.

There's only three things she uses tap water for — dishes, laundry and to take a really, really quick shower.

"You gotta be in there about 5 minutes or something like that, if not your body be all scaly and you know you'll be itching and scratching," Badon says. "I'm going home to put a perm in my hair in a few minutes cause it's looking rough right? I gotta use bottle water."

Even for perms, it's bottled water. That's how high the mistrust level is.

At some point Badon hopes to be able to use her tap water again.

And that hope and the question of when will the water be normal in Flint again is one that researchers at Virginia Tech have been studying.

Marc Edwards has become a household name in Flint. He's an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech who helped uncover the tainted drinking water. And he's continued to test water at hundreds of homes.

To be completely clear, no level of lead in water is considered safe, but the Environmental Protection Agency sets levels for water systems as a whole. Edwards says his data and a separate set from the state show that technically, Flint's water may already be considered safe to drink by existing regulations. But the those levels are not the only marker of safe water.

"It's very likely in Flint folks will never be told the water is safe as long as those lead pipes are there," Edwards says.

Those pipes are a big contributor to the city's water crisis. They connect people's homes to the water main. And in Flint, there's an estimated 30,000 of them still underground. This year, only 2 percent — or 600 — of these water service lines have been replaced.

"But as long as those lead pipes are there, that's a hazard in front of your house that at any time could cause lead poisoning of yourself and of your family," Edwards says.

The data is starting to show that anyone with a lead service line, even people outside of Flint, are potentially at risk, he says.

Early next month, Edwards will join officials from all levels of government at an EPA summit in Chicago to make an official determination. Even if Flint's water is declared technically safe to drink, officials may still recommend using faucet filters, especially until all the lead service lines are replaced. But that will take years.

Any declaration of the safety of the water will face resistance from some Flint residents who doubt their water will ever be normal again.

Resident turned activist Melissa Mays held a conference call this week, to call into question the data showing the water is improving.

"Everybody is upset. You really, we just really need you to tell the truth and that's we're not better. We're not safe," Mays said. "And I know we may sound crazy and we may sound emotional, but this is our lives."

Mays says testing a small percentage of high risk homes, as outlined in the federal regulations, isn't going to make her feel OK about the city's water.

She won't rest until every single home is tested.

All Flint residents can still get their water tested for free, but only one-third of households have done so.

For now, residents are supposed to rely on filters — though many are spending lots of time retrieving bottles of water for their everyday use.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today marks exactly one year since the mayor of Flint, Mich., declared a state of emergency because of lead in the city's drinking water. While the water system as a whole is improving, Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports filters and bottled water are likely to remain the way of life in Flint for the foreseeable future.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: This didn't begin a year ago. For almost two years, officials told residents the water was fine when it wasn't. Later they said drink filtered water unless you're a baby or pregnant. In that case, drink only bottled water. Then officials said tap water is safe for everybody as long as you have a filter. But now lots of people in Flint don't believe anything officials tell them.

JENNICE BADON: Don't drink the city water. Don't drink Flint water, period.

SMITH: Jennice Badon ducks out into the snow outside the South End Market. It's on the end of a strip mall near downtown Flint. Officials may say Flint's water is safe if filtered, but Badon uses bottled water for nearly everything. There's only three things she uses tap water for - dishes, laundry and to take a really, really quick shower.

BADON: You've got to be in there, like, maybe five minutes or something like that. If not, your body be all scaly, and you know, you'll be itching and scratching. And you know what? I'm going home and put a perm in my hair in a few minutes 'cause it's looking rough, right? I've got to use bottled water.

SMITH: In Flint, it's bottled water even for the perm. That's how high the mistrust level is. At some point, Badon hopes to be able to use her tap water again. And that hope and question - when will the water be normal in Flint again? - is one that researchers at Virginia Tech have been studying.

Professor Marc Edwards has become a household name in Flint. He helped uncover the tainted drinking water, and he's continued to test water at hundreds of homes. And to be completely clear, no level of lead is considered safe. But the U.S. EPA sets levels for water systems as a whole. Edwards says his data and a separate set from the state show that technically Flint's water may already be considered safe to drink by existing regulations. But...

MARC EDWARDS: It's very likely in Flint folks will never be told the water is safe as long as those lead pipes are there.

SMITH: Those lead pipes are a big contributor to Flint's water crisis. They connect people's homes to the water main. And in Flint, there's an estimated 30,000 of them left underground. This year, Flint has replaced only 2 percent of those water service lines - 2 percent.

EDWARDS: As long as those lead pipes are there, that's a hazard in front of your house that any time could cause lead poisoning of yourself and of your family.

SMITH: Marc Edwards says data is starting to show that anyone with a lead service line, even people outside of Flint, are potentially at risk. Early next month, Edwards will join officials from all levels of government at an EPA summit in Chicago to make an official determination. If Flint's water is declared technically safe to drink, officials may still recommend using lead filters there, especially until the lead service lines are all replaced. That will take years.

But any declaration of safety will face resistance from some Flint residents who doubt their water will ever be normal again. Resident-turned-activist Melissa Mays held a conference call this week to call into question the data showing the water is improving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELISSA MAYS: Everybody is upset. We're - you really - we just really need you to tell the truth and that we're not better; we're not safe. And I know we may sound crazy, and we may sound emotional, but this is our lives.

SMITH: Mays says testing a small percentage of high-risk homes as outlined in the federal regulations is just not going to make her feel OK about Flint's water. She won't rest until every single home in Flint is tested. All Flint residents can still get their water tested for free, but only a third of households have done so. For now, residents are supposed to rely on filters, though many are spending lots of time retrieving bottles of water for their everyday use. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.