They didn’t look like identical twins.
One was tanned and chubby, the other skinny and pale. Like any other 5-year-old boys neither Garrett nor Gavin Walters could sit still for longer than two minutes. They ran around in the playroom of the Woodside Church in Flint, Mich., while their older sister Kaylie Mosteller, 18, tried to make them sit down.
“Gavin, please eat some of your pizza,” she tried in vain. Garrett grabbed his brother’s slice.
It was not the extra slice of pizza that caused the 20-pound difference between the twins. For more than a year, Flint residents had been exposed to lead in the city’s drinking water. As a result, Gavin is now suffering from lead poisoning. For the last year, he has not grown, according his mother, Lee-Anne Walters, a 37-year-old stay at home mother. Her voice cracked when she recalled what happened to her son.
“It’s a very emotional topic because it’s my kids” Walters said, struggling to hold back tears. “I’m the kind of mom, my kids go to water. They don’t drink soda or juice. They drink water all day. I don’t blame myself for the lead poisoning, but I blame myself for not noticing it sooner.”
To save money, city officials decided in April 2014 to switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.
“It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint,” former mayor Dayne Walling told The Flint Journal, as he toasted with a glass of Flint River water in the city hall. The decision would become historic, but not in the way the mayor or the 100,000 residents had ever imagined.
After the switch, residents started to complain. Brown water pumped out of the taps, and it smelled and tasted bad, people reported. Lee-Anne Walters also started to think something was wrong with the new drinking water.
One day, she heard a scream from the bathroom. Walters ran up the stairs in her yellow two-story house and found Kaylie with tears in her eyes and a cup full of her brown hair in her hands. Walters was not surprised; the daughter was not the only family member who had lost hair after the water switch.
Walters had lost her eyelashes, and other members of the family were starting to break out in rashes after coming into contact with water. The youngest family members, the 4-year-old twins, developed red spots on their bodies every time they jumped into the backyard pool. Gavin, who was born with a compromised immune system, also complained about stomach pains and headaches.
Walters and other residents received the same response from the authorities in Flint: There is nothing wrong with water.
Walters was skeptical. After several complaints, she persuaded the local water department to test the water in her house. The results she received on her voice mail stunned her:
“Hi, Lee Anne, it’s Mike from the Water Department. I just wanted to call and let you know we got your tests back. Please, whatever you do, don’t let your kids drink the water.”
But it was too late. For more than eight months, Walters’ family had been drinking, brushing their teeth, showering, cooking, and washing their clothes in water that researchers later discovered was toxic waste.
The water from the Flint River was highly corrosive to the city’s lead contained water pipes, investigators found. As a result, lead leached from the pipes into the drinking water in Flint homes.
Walters hurried to the doctor to have her four children tested. All had been exposed to lead, and Gavin suffered from lead poisoning, the results showed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) lead exposure can damage the brain and the nervous system. The damage is believed to be irreversible.
The city maintained that the lead problems concerned only Walters’ home. Walters, who had a background as a medical assistant, had had enough. She got in contact with researchers from Virginia Tech University, who started testing the water in 300 Flint homes. In September 2015, the results were highlighted in red on the researchers’ website:
“FLINT HAS A VERY SERIOUS LEAD IN WATER PROBLEM.”
In January, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, and bottled water, water filters and lead test kits were distributed to residents. A task force commissioned by Gov., Rick Snyder declared that “all levels of government failed” the city’s residents, and that the water crisis was a “clear case of environmental injustice.”
Today, Walters describes herself as a water activist. In the churches of Flint, she coordinates the collection of drinking water tests. The environmental authorities are also testing the water, but Walters has lost faith in the system.
“My family and I will never ever, ever be drinking water just because we are told it’s safe,” Walters said. She wore artificial eyelashes. Her own have grown back sporadically, she said.
During the 2016 presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton held one of their TV-transmitted debates in Flint. Walters was among the audience, and she was given the opportunity to ask the two candidates a question live on CNN.
“Will you make a personal promise to me right now that, as president, in your first 100 days in office, you will make it a requirement that all public water systems must remove all lead service lines throughout the entire United States?” Walters asked.
Clinton replied she would commit to remove all lead pipes within the next five years. Walters was not happy about the answer to her question.
“In five years, she is not going to be in office so that doesn’t help me,” Walters said. “If you look at the Huffington Post, I think my response was ‘Hillary’s answer made me vomit in my mouth’.”
As the months passed, Walters and other Flint residents interviewed felt politicians in Washington had forgotten Flint.
Members of Congress have tried to pass bills that would help Flint restore the water pipes, but the proposals have been blocked.
A Pew Research report in November 2015 showed that the public’s trust in government is at a historic low. Only 19 percent of Americans polled say they trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. In 1964, the number in a similar poll was 77 percent.
“I don’t see anybody talking about Flint,” she said. “Flint is falling off the map, but there are still people here suffering.”
Because of the historic decision made by the city’s officials in April 2014, Flint residents still can’t drink the water without using water filters.
“This is a manmade disaster, but we didn’t make it,” Walters said, frustrated. “We didn’t make the decisions. We’ve already suffered enough. We should not have to keep fighting to get what we need.”
In the presidential election, Donald Trump, who ran as an outsider, appeared to benefit from that distrust in government. He was the first Republican nominee to win the state of Michigan since 1988.
Trump lost Genesee County, where Flint is based, but by a far smaller margin than his Republican predecessors. In 2008, McCain had 33 percent of the votes, in 2012, Romney received 35.4 percent. This year, 42.9 percent of the voters in Genesee County voted for Trump.
Walters declined to say who she voted for. “Even my husband doesn’t not who I voted for,” she wrote in an email and added:
“I will tell you I was never going to vote for Clinton.”