“Today is a good day because I didn’t cry,” says Chrystal Williams, but then emotions overtake her and tears stream down her face. “It’s painful for me, how could they do that to my children?” she asks, tugging at the scarf wrapped tightly around her head to cover her hair loss, another common affect of lead in the water.
Chrystal remembers the joys of water when she was a child – bubble baths, running through the sprinkler, and water balloon fights. She sadly remarks that her daughter, Kareemah, aged 6, hardly gets to use the minion soap her daddy bought her, and water balloon fight between Kareemah and her sister, Yanni, aged 14, is simply throwing balloons on the pavement so neither gets wet from lead-tainted water. Both girls have tested high for lead, though Kareemah’s levels were much higher. “She’s unusually active and doesn’t stay focused like a normal child,” Chrystal explains.
Her partner, Vance Griffis, patiently lets Kareemah play doctor on him, giving him “shots,” “taking blood,” and other treatments. He sadly says it’s a reflection of the fact that she’s had to go to doctors so often. Sporting a navy blue baseball cap with “Flint” emblazoned across the front, Vance recalls happier days in his hometown. It’s where Vance went to school, started his construction work, and always felt pride. He fully expected to raise his family in Flint, but today what he wants most is to leave.
Vance was devastated when he learned that Kareemah had tested so high for lead poisoning. “My child may have been robbed of some of her abilities, he sadly notes. “The health of our children is on the line, a whole generation of children,” he says. “It’s like a fallen star due to the negligence of our leaders.”
Malik Funches happily plays with his trucks, looking like a typical little boy, but just a few days ago he once again had to be taken to the hospital when he couldn’t keep any food down. “Of all my 4 kids, he is the one that stays the sickest,” says Patricia Funches of her son, nearly 3 years old. “We are constantly back and forth to the hospital with him.”
“As a parent, it’s heartbreaking,” says Patricia. In July 2014, Malik was tested for lead levels in his blood, but it wasn’t until August 2015 – more than a year later – that the Funches were notified that their son had dangerously high levels of lead in his blood. Soon after, authorities in Michigan finally acknowledged extremely high levels of lead in Flint’s water and warned residents to not drink the water.
Malik looks up at his mother, tilting his head, a bit confused. “It always takes a minute longer for him to comprehend what you’re saying,” she explains. At such a young age it’s hard to tell the full affect lead poisoning will have on Malik, but already he has severe stuttering, frequent abdominal pain and headaches, extensive rashes across his body and face, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite.
What upsets her most is that both her son’s condition and the water contamination were known for so long, and yet they were kept in the dark. “I trusted the government before, but now I don’t think I can because they hurt my baby,” says Patricia. “Somebody needs to step in and help us,” she laments. She wants people to know: “Flint lives matter.”
Sophia Waid sits on her mothers lap, crying inconsolably. Just 20 minutes ago she was giggling, picking wild flowers outside. Sophia is an adorable 2-1/2 year old child with a smile that lights up her entire face. And then she’s not. Most two year olds have moments of being out of control, but Sophia’s parents know the number of tantrums she has – often five or six a day – is far beyond the norm, even for a child in the midst of the “terrible twos.” She is more irritable, has a hard time staying focused, and has difficulty interacting positively with children her age, all things common in children poisoned by lead.
Sophia first tested high for lead at her six-month check-up. Her parents, Luke and Michelle, were told it was due to lead paint in their house. Luke did extensive renovations to rid the house of any trace of lead paint, but at Sophia’s 12-month check-up her lead levels had gone up. Luke and Michelle were told that Child Protective Services would be called if the levels didn’t go down soon. Terrified of losing their child, they moved to Michelle’s sister’s house where they hoped Sophia would be safe from lead contaminants.
Soon after moving, Luke heard General Motors (GM) would no longer use water from the Flint River as it was so corrosive that it was rusting new engine parts. “I thought, whoa, so it’s not okay for GM to build automobiles, but it’s okay for my child to drink,” recalls Luke. The GM announcement came in Oct. 2014, almost a year before there were public notices of lead in the water.
“They were threatening to take Sophia away from us because of lead in our house when it was really them giving her the lead,” says Luke, shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t understand how the people who did this can live with themselves,” but he adds that while it’s easy to point fingers, the issue is the future. He would like to know the government will stand behind his daughter and provide the healthcare and special education she will now almost certainly need.
Kamryn and Payton
Kamryn Lightfoot used to get all A’s and B’s. Now she gets D’s and F’s. “She was just a normal little kid who did all her work and got good grades,” says her mother, Melissa, “then everything slipped away with the lead.” Kamryn is 8 years old. Her 13-year old brother is in the accelerated program at school, but he was living with his grandmother outside of Flint during the time of the crisis. “Where my son is at now, Kamryn is never going to get that possibility,” Melissa sadly remarks.
“Behavior was the first thing that kicked in with Kamryn,” she reports. “She started drifting off, her attitude changed, she was rambunctious, obstinate, and so hyper it was like 6 kids in one.” Today, Kamryn has numerous ailments, all of which are linked to lead poisoning: ADHD, occupational defiance, separation anxiety, and pediatric bipolar. “It’s not like a cold they can just deal with and it goes away,” says Melissa. “It’s in there forever, and it’s never going away.”
Kamryn’s five year old sister, Payton, has tested high for lead, but so far isn’t manifesting symptoms, though Melissa knows that could change at any time. Like so many parents in Flint, the constant uncertainty is what causes the most anxiety. She hopes there will be services available for Kamryn and other affected kids in Flint. “It’s going to be so hard for them in school, they are really going to struggle. If we could get them better therapy, it would help them dramatically,” says Melissa, adding that even her 13-year old son understands the government shouldn’t be able to walk away from what it caused.
Carson Frye wasn’t even born when lead began to course through the water pipes in Flint, but his mother was pregnant with him, and sadly, Carson exhibits so many symptoms of lead poisoning. Carson weighs just 10 lbs, or about half what an average 8-month old boy would weigh. His skin is irritated and his nails must be kept as short as possible to keep him from constantly scratching himself. The hair on the top of his head is long, but along the sides and back it has mostly fallen out.
Wearing an outfit the size most babies would wear soon after birth, Carson sits contentedly on his grandmother’s lap. He looks fine, and then he spits up. Almost all babies spit up, but a few minutes later he does it again. And again a few minutes later. And again, and again, about 15 times in an hour. “I can’t even count how often he spits up, it’s just pretty much all the time,” says his grandmother, Renee Sykes.
Carson’s 7-year old brother is constantly scratching his skin that is red and broken out in rashes. Renee worries about Carson, but it’s her 7-year old grandson that causes her the most concern. “Before the water crisis he was just a happy-go-lucky guy,” reports Renee. After the prolonged exposure to lead in the water, he’s changed. “He acts out, has so many mood swings, and he’s really started acting out in school,” she explains. “He can be nice one minute, crying the next, angry, or doing crazy stuff.”
Dion and Torian
Dion and Torian cannot sit still. They scramble under the table, they run from room to room, Dion climbs up on his great-grandfather’s lap and seems to relax, but then a few minutes later spits in his face. “Exposed to lead poisoning, this is exactly what it’s like,” says Lisa Johnson, the boys’ grandmother. “They don’t sit down, they don’t sleep regular hours, they never wind down, and when you try to get them to focus on something, they get diverted almost instantaneously,” describes Lisa. Raising her voice over Dion’s screaming, Lisa introduces her mother and father. Her daughter, who is the boys’ mother, is currently upstairs. She loves her grandchildren dearly, but says dealing with their constant energy “takes a lot of back-up” from the four adults in the house, and maintaining a daily routine is nearly impossible.
Lisa knows that lead affects each child differently. Five-year old Dion, she explains, has a good vocabulary, yet he struggles to count to five or say his ABC’s. His brother, Torian, who is 3 years old, is just now learning to speak, is not yet toilet trained, and has difficulty with motor skills. Both are in special education programs, but Lisa knows they need so much more. “It’s heartbreaking that they have been put through this because they didn’t ask to live like this,” she says, fighting back tears.
“I want the government to understand what they have done to these kids, and how difficult and stressful it is,” Lisa says quite adamantly. “We might not be a rich community in Flint, but we are all tax payers here and I’m not seeing the benefits here. We going to need so many more programs for lead poisoning, because Torian and Dion, and all the children in Flint that have been affected by this, they will need help, and there are no resources for them to get the help they need,” she says, her anger and frustration visible. “It may not take away the damage that was done to them, but the earlier these children get help, the better the outcome will be,” she says quietly, adding that she just hopes her grandchildren will get the help they need.