When Every Drop Of Water Could Be Poison: A Flint Mother's Story

Feb 8, 2016
Originally published on February 10, 2017 9:09 am

The problems with high lead levels in Flint, Mich.'s water started in April 2014, when the city switched water sources and began drawing its supply from the Flint River. The new water was harder, and government officials allowed it to corrode the city's pipes, leaching lead and other toxins into the tap water.

Even though the city switched back to its original supply in October 2015, the damaged pipes continue to contaminate the water, and Flint's nearly 100,000 residents don't know when the water will be safe to drink again — even though they're still paying for it.

Jeneyah McDonald and her family are among those who are affected. All Things Considered met them on a recent reporting trip and will follow up with them in the months and years to come.


It's early in the afternoon on a cold, wintry day, and Jeneyah McDonald is preparing a dinner of baked chicken with baby lima beans and rice for her family.

The Flint resident moves smoothly around her small kitchen, able to cook without even thinking — except when she finds herself reaching for the kitchen faucet to turn on the tap water. The small habit she once took for granted could now be dangerous.

Her 6-year-old son, Justice, plays nearby.

"What did I tell you about that water?" she asks.

"It's poison," he answers.

Government negligence allowed lead and other poisons to get into the water. Now, nobody knows how long it will take until it will be safe to drink from the tap again. For families like the McDonalds, giving up tap water means changing even the smallest of their routines.

So Jeneyah, a substitute teacher, taught her son that the water is poison because, she says, "I don't know any way to explain to a 6-year-old why you can't take a bath anymore every day, why you can't help Mommy wash the dishes anymore ... and that way he'll know I'm serious, don't play with it, even if I'm not looking."

Jeneyah's dinner recipes all have a new ingredient these days. She says she has been using bottled water so long, she knows how many it takes to fill each of her pots. For the small one she is using to boil the lima beans: two. For a bigger pot, like the one to make spaghetti: seven.

Twisting open the bottle caps is time-consuming and sometimes painful for her arthritic hands. But she doesn't trust the city-issued water filter for her kitchen faucet, so she puts up with the pain to ensure her two sons are drinking uncontaminated water.

As she waits for the water to boil, 43-year-old Jeneyah recalls her childhood, when bottled water was a luxury and she could drink straight from the water hose. She doesn't think that will ever happen in Flint again, not for her anyway.

"I will never trust this water ever again," she says, shaking her head. "My boys will never experience the childhood I experienced in Flint, drinking water out of a water hose."

It all started two years ago, when the city switched its water supply. Jeneyah, like many of Flint's residents, immediately knew something was wrong. The water was a funny beige color and smelled like sewage one day, like a swimming pool the next.

Eventually, she started buying bottled water, on top of paying a water bill every month. It was expensive. At the time, Jeneyah was working at a homeless shelter. Her husband, 42-year-old Earl, was unable to work owing to a disability.

"My food bill for a week would be upwards of $250 to $300, and at least $100 of that was water," Jeneyah says. "No food stamps, no assistance, just having to do what I have to do because I have to keep my boys safe."

The family practically went broke buying cases of bottled water, she says, and even that wasn't enough to protect her and her family. After weeks of showering in the tap water, Jeneyah found her hair coming out in clumps. She used to be known for her long, flowing hair.

"It's gone," she says. "That was part of me." Now, she has a short bob.

Even so, she doesn't worry so much about her hair. What she really worries about is the damage to her sons.

Six-year-old Justice has eczema, dark rashes on his wrists and chin where he says "maybe a bear scratched me." His doctor has prescribed him medicated creams and ointments, but none of them seem to be working. The rashes persist. In Flint, there's no way to know whether the eczema or the hair loss comes from the water or something else.

Two-year-old Josiah has problems, too. Lead poisoning can lower young children's IQ and slow their development, something that's constantly on Jeneyah's mind. She remembers filling his baby bottles with formula made with water from the tap, and she feels guilty, as if she should have done something sooner.

"Even now, I can see slower developments in Josiah. And, you know, who's to say it's not from the water?" she asks.

So in an effort to keep the water from harming her boys more, her and her husband's daily routines now include rounds of water pickups.

On this afternoon, Jeneyah finishes seasoning her chicken, covers it with foil and puts it in the oven. With the lima beans on the stove to cook, and the rice ready to go after, she puts on her boots and coat and heads to her truck.

Her first stop is Triumph Church. She likes coming here because they give based on how much each family thinks it needs. A church volunteer approaches Jeneyah's window, and asks how much water she wants.

"How many can I have?" Jeneyah asks. "About five or six of them?"

"Sounds good to me!" the volunteer responds.

Other volunteers load the bed of the truck with six cases of water, each containing a couple of dozen half-liter bottles, donated from people all over the country, as far away as California.

"That's amazing," Jeneyah says. "I'm proud of us, human beings. I was not liking humans for a while there!"

Next stop is a firehouse, where National Guard troops in their camouflage fatigues stand in front of large pallets of bottled water. Here, the water comes from the government — and the troops limit the amount each person can pick up. Two cases at one firehouse, a couple of gallons at another.

It's not enough, Jeneyah says, not for a family of four. She also likes to keep a small stockpile of water, just in case. If one of her children spills something or has another accident, it can take as many as seven cases for a bath. If a snowstorm hits or she's unable to make her rounds, her family needs enough backup to get through a few days.

It takes her about an hour to hit all the stops each day, and she has no idea how many weeks or months this daily routine will have to continue.

"Is this America?" she asks. "I am stupefied that I'm not in, like, Ethiopia or somewhere. You're talking about clean water."

Back at home, she unloads the cases of water and opens another two bottles to boil some rice, the smell of baked chicken pungent in the air. Her sons play in the other room, a children's television show in the background.

She worries that the donations will stop coming as people pay less attention to Flint, that government help for the boys will stop once the immediate crisis subsides.

"They look OK today. What will they look like in five years? In 10 years?" she wonders. "And, at that point, where will all of these government officials be then, when I am dealing with the repercussions of that water?"

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're about to meet a mother, a substitute teacher who has had to teach her children not to turn on the faucets in their home. It took a long time for Flint, Mich.'s water crisis to get national attention. Now, politicians are talking about it. Hillary Clinton toured the city yesterday. A Democratic presidential debate is even scheduled there next month. But that doesn't make life easier for Jeneyah McDonald and others who call Flint home. It doesn't answer their questions or help them plan for meals and bathing without clean tap water.

JENEYAH MCDONALD: What'd did I tell you about that water? It's poison (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Did you say it's poison?

I met Jeneyah when I visited Flint a couple weeks ago. She has taught her 6-year-old son, Justice, that the water is poison.

MCDONALD: Because I don't know any way to explain to a 6-year-old why you can't take a bath anymore every day, why you can't help mommy wash the dishes anymore. So I told him it's poison. And that way, he'll know I'm serious. Don't play with it even when I'm not looking. If this is poison, I better not touch it.

SHAPIRO: Government negligence allowed lead and other poisons to get into the water. Now nobody knows how long it will take until it'll be safe to drink again. Here's what giving up tap water means for Jeneyah's family in a typical day.

What's your name? What's your name?

It's early afternoon. Two-year-old Josiah and his older brother, Justice, are playing while their mom makes dinner for her husband, Earl, and the kids.

MCDONALD: I started my chicken off this morning with about eight bottles of water to start to thaw it out.

SHAPIRO: She can cook without even thinking. Her hands know the recipes. Tonight, it's baked chicken with baby lima beans and rice. The recipes have a new ingredient these days.

MCDONALD: I've been doing this so long, I kind of know how many bottles of water it takes for each pan. So for this one, with what I'm making tonight I only need two bottles of water. When I use my bigger pans, say like this one to make spaghetti, this one is seven bottles.

SHAPIRO: The city gave her a water filter for the kitchen faucet, but she doesn't trust it. After all, the city told the water was safe a year ago when it was actually full of lead. While she waits for the water to boil, she thinks about how much things have changed since she was a kid.

MCDONALD: Bottled water used to be a luxury. People didn't drink it. Everyone drank tap water. When I was growing up, you went outside, got the water hose and drank some water. Yeah, not happening. I will never trust this water ever again. My boys will never experience the childhood I experienced in Flint, drinking water out of a water hose.

SHAPIRO: When Flint switched its water supply two years ago, Jeneyah knew something was wrong. It was a funny color and smelled like sewage. Eventually, she started buying bottled water.

MCDONALD: I mean, my food bill for a week would be upwards of $250 to $300, and at least $100 of that was water. At least. No food stamps, no assistance, just having to do what I have to do because I've got to keep my boys safe.

SHAPIRO: Plus, she was still paying a water bill every month. She was working at a homeless shelter then. Her husband is disabled. She says they practically went broke buying bottled water, but it still was not enough to protect her and her family. After weeks of showering in the poisoned water, Jeneyah's long, flowing hair started coming out in clumps. Now she has a short bob.

MCDONALD: Anyone who knows me, the first thing when you say - you remember Jeneyah? The second thing they will say is the one with the long hair. It's gone. It's gone. So that was - it was part of me.

SHAPIRO: But she doesn't even worry so much about her hair. She really worries about her damage to her kids, and she has no way to know what is caused by the water and what isn't.

MCDONALD: You know, like my son, they say he has eczema, and I'll show you his wrist and how bad it is. And it's been that way for over a year, and his doctor - you know, more and more creams and ointments and creams, and none of these little creams and ointments are helping him.

SHAPIRO: When we ask 6-year-old Justice about the rashes on his wrists, he says maybe a bear scratched me. The younger boy, Josiah, has problems, too.

MCDONALD: Even now, I can tell some slower developments in Josiah. You know, and who's to say that's not from the water? But of course, my government is going to tell me I'm paranoid and it's not that. Show me it's not. I'll wait.

SHAPIRO: Lead poisoning lowers kids' IQ and slows their development. It's constantly on Jeneyah's mind. She remembers filling Josiah's baby bottles with formula using the water from the tap. She feels guilty, like maybe she should've done something sooner.

MCDONALD: You know, it's a lot of things I think about that, you know, a lot of people don't even know I think about. Like when you came in, you said hi. At 2, Justice would've been all over you. He'd have been hi, I'm Justice. I don't get that from Josiah. And I don't know that that didn't come from me fixing his bottles with that water.

SHAPIRO: So now Jeneyah's daily routine includes water pickups. She's grateful that gas is below $2 a gallon since she does so much more driving these days. With the chicken in the oven, she climbs into the car. First stop is Triumph Church.

MCDONALD: And I love it because you pull up and they load your car.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. How many are you looking for today?

MCDONALD: How many can I have? About five or six of 'em?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, sounds good to me.

MCDONALD: OK.

SHAPIRO: Each case has a couple dozen half-liter bottles. Hattie Collins is organizing the distribution.

Where does all this water come from? Who donated it?

HATTIE COLLINS: This right here came from Indiana, Georgia. We had one yesterday from California. They're coming all over, and that's a blessing to me. Triumph. Thank y'all, thank y'all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you, granny, love you.

COLLINS: Love you too, darling.

MCDONALD: I'll see you Thursday.

SHAPIRO: That's amazing that water's coming from as far away as California and South Carolina.

MCDONALD: Isn't it? That's amazing. I am proud of us. People as human beings. I was not liking humans for a while.

SHAPIRO: We pull into another line of cars in front of a firehouse.

And these are National Guard troops all in their camouflage fatigues and everything?

MCDONALD: They are, they are.

SHAPIRO: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder deployed these troops to hand out water. They limit the amount each person can pick up.

MCDONALD: You come down here where they're getting the water from all of these donations, they're getting this money for all of this water - you only get two per household, come back tomorrow. I don't have time tomorrow, I've got two kids.

SHAPIRO: Jeneyah keeps a stockpile just in case. If one of the kids has a spill or another accident, a bath can take five or six cases of water. If a snowstorm hits, they need enough backup to get through a few days. It takes her about an hour to hit all the stops each day, and she has no idea when this will end. Driving gives her a lot of time to think.

MCDONALD: Is this America? I am, like, stupefied that I'm not in, like, Ethiopia or somewhere. You're talking about clean water.

SHAPIRO: Back home, she unloads the cases of water and puts dinner on the table. The kids have bottles in the bathroom to brush their teeth before bed. Jeneyah worries that the donations will dry up when people stop paying attention to Flint. She worries that government help for her kids will go away when the immediate crisis subsides.

MCDONALD: They look OK today. What are they going to look like in five years? In 10 years? And at that point, where will all of these government officials and things be then, when I'm dealing with the repercussions of that water?

SHAPIRO: Nobody knows the answers to those questions, but we'll find out. We're going to keep in touch with the McDonald family and keep you updated on their story as it unfolds over months and years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.