Joyce Ellis McNeal can’t trust a glass of water.
In fact, the Flint mom and grandma, who’s in her 60s, keeps a bottle of water in her purse to help avoid the tap. On the occasions someone does pour her a glass, she must process all kinds of emotions just to take a sip – and, even then, she still might not brave a drink.
McNeal lived through the Flint water crisis. She experienced firsthand the ramifications that come along with using dirty water, and the trauma she encountered during that time has stuck with her.
“Psychologically, I can’t drink it because I know what it did,” she explains.
Toward the beginning of the crisis, McNeal lost her son, Joseph Pounds Jr., after he fell fatally ill by contracting something that McNeal believes came from the contaminated water – though she says she was not given an official diagnosis.
In addition, she, her husband and their grandson developed health issues of their own and face the stigma of living in a poisoned city, which tends to scare loved ones and keep them at bay.
So how did she deal with it all – and does Flint have clean water in 2019, five years after the crisis was announced?
We spoke with both McNeal and local experts to find out.
A manmade crisis
It all started back in 2012. At the time, McNeal was running a day care center that helped moms move from welfare to work without worrying about quality child care.
Meanwhile, Flint officials and the city’s state-appointed emergency manager were looking for ways to save the city money on water.
These officials decided that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was too expensive and wanted to build a pipeline that connected the Karegnondi Water Authority, which draws water from Lake Huron, to Flint.
The move was estimated to save the city $200 million over the course of 25 years, according to a 2016 NPR report.
During the construction of the pipeline, the city would need to find an interim source of water. So in April of 2014, the same year that McNeal’s day care closed, the city started pulling water from the Flint River.
Almost immediately, around May of that year, residents began to complain that their water was brown and had a foul odor.
It was reported that the water from the Flint River was 70 percent harder than the city’s previous source, yet officials insisted that it was safe to drink.
McNeal admits that she was skeptical of the claims at first.
“I saw these water warriors with these dirty bottles, and I weighed in my opinion – because I would have never, ever believed it,” she says. “I kept saying: ‘What are they up to? Where are they getting that dirty water from? That’s impossible.'”
But then, reports of E. coli and other bacteria began to surface, and some of McNeal’s friends and acquaintances were falling ill.
“I had a cook that worked for me, and she began to get sick with kidney stones and her health started deteriorating,” McNeal says. “She lived on the north side, and she called me up one morning and said the water was brown and you can smell it. She said something is wrong with it.”
McNeal’s water never displayed weird colors or funky smells, but complaints about the water would soon begin cropping up in her home too.
“My grandson is telling me that his skin felt like rubble. That it didn’t feel normal. I began to look at him and saw that he was all black and dark,” she says. “(And) I hadn’t seen my son for a while.”
According to McNeal, it wasn’t uncommon for her son, Joseph, to spend time away from the house. But when she saw him again, he was very sick and told her that his illness was caused by the water. Since Joseph had a serious case of bipolar disorder and was HIV-positive, though, his mom didn’t think much of these comments and continued to use the water.
It was a decision she’d later regret.
In the summer of 2015, a friend of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha came to her with information about the possibility of lead in the water in Flint.
The pediatrician and mom of two immediately became concerned about the health of Flint’s kids and decided to conduct research to see if lead levels were increasing in the blood of local kids.
She found that the water was not being treated properly.
“For about a year I was telling my patients that everything was OK with the water – because how could it not be OK? We live in America, the richest country in history of the world. It’s the 21st century (and) we are in the middle of the Great Lakes,” she says. “To have these suspicions confirmed was absolutely heartbreaking.”
In addition, she discovered the water was 20 times more corrosive than water from the Great Lakes. It was so corrosive, in fact, that it was damaging parts at the GM plant in Flint and was causing lead from galvanized piping to seep into it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any amount of lead can be dangerous. It can damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development and increase the risk of learning and behavior problems – and once someone is exposed, the damage can’t be undone.
In other words, the water was not safe to drink.
With this in mind, Hanna-Attisha did something most doctors and academics don’t typically do: She went public with her research.
“At first the state denied the findings, just as they denied everyone else who had raised concerns about the water,” she says. In a matter of weeks, however, officials would concede and, by October of 2015, Flint was back using water from its original source, now under the jurisdiction of the Great Lakes Water Authority.
But that would come too late for McNeal and her family.
On Oct. 18, just two days after his 40th birthday, Joseph died in his mom’s home. But McNeal doesn’t believe it was the lead that caused her son’s health complications. She thinks it was a combination of his compromised immune system and bacteria from the water.
“Wayne State found out we had 15 ppb – the lead level was 15 – and we had five bacteria they weren’t able to identify, because (then-Gov. Rick) Snyder pulled the research,” she says.
TheCDC reports that 15 ppb, or parts per billion, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level.
Joseph’s death was particularly hard for his then-16-year-old son, Mylum, who lived with McNeal at the time. The A-student’s grades began to slip and he became more reclusive and withdrawn.
“He couldn’t function around people,” McNeal says. When the doctors attempted to draw blood, he was dehydrated and refused water because he was afraid of it.
“For six months, trying to get him to drink fluid and water was difficult, (because) I think he was in shock,” she says.
Then, one day Mylum asked his grandma to take him to the Flint River. She took him downtown and stood with him over the flowing water.
“I could tell then that he was having an anxiety attack and he said, ‘So this is what they had us drinking? This is what they did?'” she says. “That was a really heavy moment for him.”
But health and emotional issues aren’t the only ones that McNeal’s family has had to face as a result of the water crisis.
Her daughter, who lives in Atlanta, has not brought her daughters up to Michigan to see their grandma since the start of the crisis because she is so afraid of the water. There haven’t been very many local guests, either.
“Even when my son died, you can tell people were reluctant,” McNeal says. “It’s almost like folks feel bad to come over your house and ask for a glass of water.”
And the retiree, who now works as a guest teacher for local seventh and eighth graders, can’t up and move to a different area, either.
Since the crisis, McNeal says her annual home insurance doubled to $2,600, which doesn’t cover her bathrooms, and the value of her once-$180,000 home has dropped to around $50,000.
“Who’s going to buy this house if I can’t prove to them that this house is lead-free?” she says. “I’m stuck here.”
So she continues to live with water that she won’t drink, even with a filter, though she will bathe or do chores with it now. And she knows other people that use it for cooking.
“People that had their pipes changed have told me that they have cooked with it, but they won’t drink it,” she says. “Could I cook with it? I don’t think so … (but) my pipes have not even been looked at.”
Making it right
Despite this, McNeal still has hope for the city of Flint and supports the city’s current mayor, Dr. Karen Weaver, who was elected after the water crisis began.
“She was the first one that took the initiative to go public and say stop drinking and bathing in the water,” McNeal says. “I think she’s doing a tremendous job. She’s always in the schools, she’s always with the senior citizens, always meeting and engaging the community – and she always keeps everything public.”
She’s been working hard for the community, too.
According to a statement from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to Metro Parent, the city was granted $300 million to be spent on checking and replacing service lines in Flint.
As of mid-February, there’s $128 million, according to this same statement, and an estimated 7,000-8,000 pipes left, according to Weaver.
“We had 18,000 pipes as a priority, (and) we were supposed to have those looked at by the end of 2019. We looked at more than 18,000 by the end of last year,” Weaver says.
Once all of the pipes are examined and all the galvanized ones are swapped with copper, Weaver plans to explore ways to replace the appliances and fixtures of individual residents that were damaged by the water.
“We want all of the lead out of Flint,” she says.
Until that time, Weaver is recommending that residents don’t drink the water and continue to get bottled water and filters at locally supported donation centers throughout the city, despite state reports that the water is safe.
“When you have been misinformed by every level of government, it’s hard to reestablish trust. The state has told us, based on the current results, we could drink from the tap, but I don’t trust that,” Weaver explains (the state deemed the water safe enough to end its bottled-water distribution program in April 2018). “I’m turning to our medical community, our scientific community (because) I want to be able to trust it enough to say it’s OK.”
As of this January, 15 people have been charged in relation to the Flint water crisis. Seven have reportedly pleaded no contest, according to Flint news station ABC 12, and no one has served any time in prison.
A teaching moment
McNeal and Mylum both have health problems as a result of the Flint water crisis, she says. McNeal has uncontrollable blood pressure, memory loss and is likely going to lose eyesight in one eye.
Mylum, now 19, had his gall bladder removed just after he graduated from high school – and they weren’t the only ones to experience health issues and hardships. Many other residents, including local seniors, experienced similar issues.
Despite the health issues and hardships, both McNeal and her grandson have become more active in the community. McNeal became the first African-American person to run for office in her ward, and Mylum voted for the first time in the last election.
Others in the community have also made great strides while picking the city up from the crisis.
“We’ve become leaders on so many things. There are so many of us that can talk to us about water quality, so many of us learning about pipes, learning about healthy diets and what people need,” Weaver says. “We’re knowledgeable and stronger as a result, and we continue to rise.”
Still, Weaver and McNeal hope that others can learn from what happened to Flint.
“I would like people to know that your voice makes a difference,” Weaver says. “Our crisis was done at the hands of (an) emergency manager, and it shows what happens when your voice is taken away.”
McNeal adds, “Trust your neighbor, trust your community when they are crying. Don’t make the mistake I did. Because when your neighbor is hurting, it’s coming to you next.”
Flint Water Crisis Timeline
June: Flint officials begin exploring ways to save money on water. They eventually decide to leave the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would require an interim water source.
April:The city makes the switch to the Flint River on an interim basis.
May:Flint residents begin to complain about the state of their water.
August: Bacteria are detected in the city’s water supply, prompting a boil advisory and increased chlorine use.
October:GM, which has a large plant in Flint, stops using Flint River water, citing corrosion of equipment.
January: Flint is found in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act due to a high level of disinfection byproducts.
September: A group of doctors finds high levels of lead in local kids’ blood samples and asks the city to stop using Flint water. State regulators say the water is safe, though later in the month, former Gov. Rick Snyder would announce a plan to take action in response to the doctor’s findings. It’s the first acknowledgment that there might be an issue.
October: The city begins providing free filters and water testing for residents. It also switches back to Detroit water.
December:New Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver declares a state of emergency in Flint.
January: Snyder and former President Barack Obama declare a state of emergency. Aid is granted. Former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launches an “independent review” into the Flint crisis. The EPA issues an emergency order.
March: A “governor-appointed panel” decides the state of Michigan is accountable for the crisis.
March: A judge approves a plan to replace waterlines in 18,000 homes in Flint.
July: A team of researchers test 138 Flint homes and find lead levels well within the federal safety standard.
April:The state of Michigan ceases its bottled-water program, deeming water quality to be within state and federal standards.
January: By this point, 15 people are charged in relation to the Flint water crisis. Seven have reportedly pleaded no contest, and no one has served prison time.
Know someone affected by the Flint Water Crisis? We’ve compiled a list of Genessee County advocacy organizations that can help.