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New study shows women bore brunt of Flint water crisis, but they’ve also led fight against it

Residents of Flint, Michigan, were forced to drink donated bottled water or face devastating consequences from contaminated water. (U.S. Air Force/Ray Crayton)

In early 2014, Flint, Michigan, officials decided to save the cash-strapped city some money by switching the city’s water supply from Detroit’s water system to the city’s local river. But in this move, city and state officials failed to treat the river water to reduce corrosion. The result of their oversight caused lead to trickle into the city’s water supply for the next 18 months from the city’s aging pipes, wreaking havoc on the health and lives of Flint’s citizens.  

While the carelessness of public officials that swapped the water source was painful for Flint residents of every stripe, the majority of whom are low-income and black, women and children are enduring some of the most devastating costs of the crisis. Fifteen criminal indictments of public officials later, new research reveals that women experienced some of the worst effects of the nightmare: fertility rates dropped while fetal death rates rose extraordinarily during the period of lead exposure.  

The fetal death rate among women who tried to conceive rose 58 percent after April 2014, when the water source was switched, according to researchers at Kansas and West Virginia universities. Over the same time period, rates of pregnancies among Flint women dropped by 12 percent. Excessive lead exposure causes myriad health problems in children and adults. Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable: exposure can lead to symptoms ranging from irritability to slowed development and growth and even depression of the central nervous system that can result in coma, convulsions, and death, according to the World Health Organization.  

Though Michigan women and children have suffered the horrendous consequences of the crisis, women have also led the fight for access to safe and affordable drinking water, as well as the battle to hold city and state officials accountable for their negligence. We the People of Detroit, a grassroots civil rights group for water safety and accessibility, was co-founded by five women of color in 2008. In 2016, the group delivered 125 tons of drinkable water to residents across Detroit and Flint in particular. Monica Lewis-Patrick, a Flint resident and one of the co-founders, has said she “can’t touch water or drink water or be in contact with water without thinking about someone not having it.”

Two mothers in Flint are also largely responsible for drawing national attention to the water crisis from the beginning, and were the first to challenge city officials when they tried to dodge responsibility for the contamination. Nineteen-year-old Sasha Avonna Bell was the first Flint parent to file a lawsuit against public officials and companies on behalf of her children in 2015. Her case was one of more than 200 lawsuits filed in the name of more than 500 children. (Bell was tragically murdered in her apartment in April 2016.)  

LeeAnne Walters, a mother of three, began to question the water quality in 2014 after her children and husband developed symptoms including rashes, hair loss, stomach pain, and dizziness. (LeeAnne herself lost her eyelashes.) Her unwavering, independent muckraking work forced the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to test her water and figure out that the problem was in the city’s water system.  

After the results of that first test, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation. An EPA official then shared their alarming findings with a lead corrosion expert who proceeded to test water in more than 250 Flint homes. Those findings proved that the lead levels in one in six Flint homes exceeded the EPA’s threshold. Though city officials tried to brush Walters off by telling her the problem was in her home’s pipes, the outreach and investigation she did helped prove that the problem was citywide, and put the crisis in the national spotlight.  

Lead levels in the city’s water, however, didn’t return to the EPA-established safe limit until September 2017.  



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