World·In Depth

Flint water crisis: 5 faces dealing with lead-tainted taps in Michigan

For nearly 18 months, residents in Flint, Mich., were drinking water tainted with lead. Meet five people whose lives have been forever changed because of the crisis.

From a doctor to a father, meet the people whose lives have been forever changed by the lead in Flint's water

The CBC's Steven D'Souza visits Flint, Mich., where it's possible an entire generation could be exposed to lead 5:47

For 18 months, the people of Flint, Mich., were drinking water laced with a toxic stew of chemicals, including lead.

Looking to save about $5 million over two years, Flint had cut ties with the Detroit Water and Sewerage system and hooked its system up to the more-corrosive Flint River. Left untreated, the Flint water pumped through the system was eating away at the pipes, resulting in lead that eventually leached into the tap water.

On the surface of the Flint water crisis, there is anger and frustration. There's also a sense of abandonment that flows through the town, which has seen its share of hard times.

These are the stories of five individuals whose lives have been forever changed because of what came out when they opened their taps. 

The doctor: Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was the one who discovered elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint's children. But when she took her findings to state officials, she was ignored and her research questioned. 

​"It was a little traumatic. The numbers didn't lie, but when we were told we were wrong, that we were 'unfortunate researchers' … it's hard not to second-guess yourself." 

We had every obstacle to our children's success before this and then we gave them lead.- Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha , Hurley Medical Center

But knowing the irreversible danger that any amount of lead poses to developing children, she pushed on. She estimates as many as 9,000 Flint children under the age of six were exposed to lead. She's now leading a team of researchers and public-health officials to assess how widespread the exposure was, to monitor the children's long-term development and to try to find ways to lessen the impact.

She's determined to help the community overcome yet another obstacle.

"It's hard to believe that this would have happened in an affluent suburb of Michigan," she said.

"We have a 40-per-cent poverty rate, we have no grocery stores, one of the highest crime rates in the country, unemployment. We had every obstacle to our children's success before this and then we gave them lead.

"It is going to be a challenge, but we have to use this opportunity to make it right."

The mother: Sarah Conn

Sarah Conn is at a clinic filled with a sense of dread. She's brought her four-year-old son Casimir to have his blood tested for lead. She knows even a negative test doesn't get them out of the woods. The ability to detect lead in the bloodstream becomes harder the longer it's been since initial exposure. So while her son's levels may have peaked six months ago, when the system was still connected to the Flint River, tests now may show nothing.
We always filtered our water before all this. I just don't even trust water filters anymore. I don't trust anybody.- Sarah Conn , Flint resident

"I just have no clue as to what's going to happen," she said. "Hearing about all the effects that lead poisoning will have on him when he grows up, it's terrifying."

She had filters on her taps and tried to avoid Flint's water by bathing Casimir at her parents' house during the crisis so she has no idea how bad his exposure was.

"We always filtered our water before all this. I just don't even trust water filters anymore. I don't trust anybody."

The father: Dion McKinney

A longtime resident of Flint, Dion McKinney had moved away to find a better life for his family. He moved back in October when his mother started suffering health problems after drinking Flint's water.

Every day in the house is a challenge to stretch the precious little bottled water they get. Some needs to be rationed for cooking. The majority goes to his four-month-old daughter: washing her clothes, bathing, even cleaning her pacifiers. 

The state turned their backs on us.- Dion McKinney, Flint resident

"We're used to struggle; we've been struggling ever since GM. It's like they turned their back on us, the state turned their back on us."

He's seen the reports of failures of at every level of government but doesn't have the time or energy for anger.

"I'm upset about it but who can I swing at? Shadow-boxing don't do it," he said.

"We don't know who to trust, we just doing what we gotta do to stay alive."

The sheriff: Robert Pickell​

Sheriff Robert Pickell spends most of his days now at meetings, co-ordinating water-distribution efforts. Often he's out on the front lines, handing out cases of water door-to-door. A resident of Flint for 50 years, and sheriff for 17, he knows the politics of the water crisis. 

"The less fortunate, these are the people that don't have a political voice; these are the people that don't make contributions to campaigns. They are the forgotten people and, as a result, the forgotten people are the ones that suffer again."

We're putting a Band-Aid on the problem.- Robert Pickell , Flint county sheriff

He wants U.S. President Barack Obama to declare Flint a federal disaster, which would free up millions to rebuild the city's aging pipes. While Washington has committed $80 million, Pickell says it's nowhere close to what's needed to replace the infrastructure that's poisoned the water.

"What we're doing here, with water and filters, we're putting a Band-Aid on the problem. It's an important Band-Aid but a surgical procedure needs to be done. And until we get that, we're kidding ourselves."

The soldier: Nehman Lauder

As the government came to understand the true scope of the water crisis, the Michigan National Guard was deployed to hand out cases of water. Specialist Nehman Lauder is welcomed with big smiles when he approaches doors with water, filters and testing kits.

I went to one house and the lady was just in tears. She couldn't believe we were helping out.- Nehman Lauder, Michigan National Guard

"I went to one house and the lady was just in tears. She couldn't believe we were helping out. It made me feel warm inside, knowing I was helping her."

The water-response team he's assigned to is one of 18 out on this day. They hope to hit 10,000 homes a day. Each one is logged and records are kept of who has received what and how much. It's a logistical operation he never thought he'd be doing.

"I lived in a third-world country before and knowing that this stuff is happening here — I never thought it would happen here."

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.