Flint, Michigan, is less than 70 miles from the Great Lakes, the most abundant fresh water on the face of the planet. It’s laced with creeks and a broad river that bears its name. Yet in 2014, Flint’s drinking water became a threat — not because of scarcity, or a natural disaster, or even a familiar tale of corporate pollution.

Ten years ago this spring, public officials made catastrophic changes in the city’s water source and treatment, then used testing practices that hid dangers. As problems emerged, they failed to appropriately change course. Residents raised repeated concerns about the color, odor and taste of the water but struggled to get a sufficiently serious response, especially from state and federal authorities.

It didn’t help that the distressed city was under the authority of state-appointed emergency managers, an unusually expansive oversight system that residents decried. For a crucial period of about 3 1/2 years, local decision-making was not accountable to voters. The result: excess exposure to toxic lead, bacteria and a disinfection byproduct in Flint’s drinking water. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease sickened 90 people and killed 12. (The toll is likely higher, as Frontline documented.) The water, now drawn from the Flint River, wasn’t treated with corrosion control — a violation of federal law — so the pipes deteriorated more every day.

At one point, saying the water damaged its machinery, a General Motors plant switched to another community’s system. Flint’s emergency manager and other officials still insisted that nothing was seriously wrong with the water. But if the water was harming machines, many wondered, what was it doing to people?

The Flint River near Vietnam Veterans Park along East Fifth Avenue and James P. Cole Boulevard

It took about 18 months, and an extraordinary effort by residents and a few key researchers, before the state reconnected Flint with Detroit’s water, which is drawn from Lake Huron. In the years since, remediation efforts have included replacing corroded pipes, at-home filtration and infrastructure investments, which seem to have yielded promising results. Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said in December that Flint’s water had met federal standards for more than seven straight years. Recent testing followed Michigan’s requirements, adopted in 2018, which are even tougher than federal standards. The state and city are working to resolve deficiencies to the supply system that can affect water safety.

Expired water bottles are scattered throughout the abandoned Northwestern High School in Flint.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley takes a tour of upgraded facilities at the Flint water plant. “It’s about establishing all the things that we need to be able to build back the trust,” Neeley said.

But no one can flip a switch on public trust. And Flint was vulnerable long before the water crisis.

Many point to the crisis as an extreme example of environmental injustice, where people of color and poor people, and especially those who are both, are disproportionately exposed to toxic conditions. A state commission acknowledged that race and class contributed to Flint not having “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities. Moreover, by virtue of their being subject to emergency management, Flint residents were not provided equal access to, and meaningful involvement in, the government decision-making process.”

That emergency manager law is still on the books. The work to replace the pipes is mostly done — but the city has blown repeated deadlines to complete it. Two state investigations under two administrations led to high-profile criminal charges, including allegations of involuntary manslaughter, official misconduct and willful neglect of duty. Primarily, state officials and employees were charged, including the former director of the state health agency and the former governor. Two emergency managers were also charged; both pleaded not guilty. One has said there was “overwhelming consensus” for the switch, and he was “grossly misled” by state water experts.

No case made it to trial. A new attorney general’s team dismissed the initial cases and started a new investigation. But the second wave of charges fell apart when courts rejected the use of a one-man grand jury to gain indictments.

The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t use its authority to effectively protect public health in Flint, according to the agency’s inspector general. The EPA has denied liability, however, and earlier this year asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that it failed to properly intervene.

While it was announced in 2020, not one penny of the class-action settlement of more than $626 million has reached residents. With more than 40,000 claims and 30 compensation categories, a special master indicated recently that the initial review should be complete this summer, but there will still be more vetting to do before claims are paid. (Some lawyers and contractors, though, have already been paid preliminary fees and expenses.)

Water is Flint’s origin story. The city was founded on a riverbank, and water powered its rise. Each spring, the water turns neighborhoods and parks lush. But these days, the betrayal of trust by the very institutions meant to protect residents has made some extra cautious as they look to keep themselves and their community safe. Their relationship with water is forever changed.

A nonprofit promotes protection of fresh water in a parking lot across the street from the Flint River along James P. Cole Boulevard.

Pastor Robert McCathern of Flint’s Joy Tabernacle Church said he has a list of about 30 people who haven’t gotten baptized because they’re afraid of the water. They’re wondering, he said, “‘Am I still saved?’ And the answer is yes.”

McCathern, 70, crosses the street in front of Joy Tabernacle Church in Flint. The church is also the site of the Urban Renaissance Center, a faith-based nonprofit designed to provide social and development services in the Civic Park neighborhood and broader Flint community.

McCathern’s church served as a bottled-water distribution site during the crisis, which, he said, strengthened relationships and community trust. But he worries for the next generation, especially their psychological well-being. And he has his own fears too. He said he often smells a “foul odor” from the water. He is apprehensive when showering and usually drinks bottled water, he said, but sometimes lets his guard down to make tea with tap water.

In recent years, McCathern was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer. He believes it’s connected to chemicals in the water but will never know for sure. Over his 22 years at Joy Tabernacle, McCathern said, he’s seen an uptick in youth suicide. He wonders about a connection between lead exposure and violence. He recalls sitting at one funeral and thinking, Oh my God, if it produces violent tendencies, that’s not just outward violent tendencies — that’s internal.

McCathern approaches Tayler Armstrong, 9, and his grandmother Patricia Stewart-Burton while preaching during a Sunday service at Joy Tabernacle Church.

An investigation published in Science Advances showed an 8% increase in the number of school-aged children in Flint with a qualified special educational need. But, the researchers indicated, it’s difficult to pinpoint to what extent lead is the direct cause.

A cross-sectional study backed by the federal Office of Victims of Crime found that five years after the onset of the crisis, an estimated 1 in 5 residents — roughly 22,600 people — had met the criteria for clinical depression in the past year. One in 4, or 25,000 people, were estimated to have had post-traumatic stress disorder. According to researchers, only 34.8% of residents were offered mental health services to assist with psychiatric symptoms related to the crisis. Most people used them, if offered.

We’re very acquainted to human suffering. This community has been acquainted to abandonment — to not trusting health systems, not having relationships with health systems and not having access at a level of comfortability. People have to come out of their safe zones to access health. Marginalized communities, people of color, have to go on and survive. They have to go through it.”

— Pastor Robert McCathern

McCathern becomes emotional while talking with a friend about the lasting health impacts of the Flint water crisis. “That’s the only reason I’m here [in Flint], is because so much injustice to humans, to humanity.”

Teagan Medlin was a teenager in Flint during the water crisis. Now, the 25-year-old is the mother of three, including a newborn named Audrina. She lives at a recovery house for people with substance use disorder. As she works through her own recovery, she also struggles with whether it’s OK to expose her children to the water.

Teagan Medlin, 25, holds her newborn baby, Audrina, at a recovery house where she lives temporarily.
Medlin bathes Audrina using water from the bath faucet at the recovery house in Flint.

Medlin said she uses her food stamp benefits on bottled water deliveries from Walmart for Audrina’s bottles. For her first months, Medlin relied on the infant’s father to bathe her at his home outside the city.

I’ve been through the wringer. I’m sure I can handle it, but my babies — I don’t know what that could do to them. I am already done growing. I’m 25 and my brain is done growing. My body is done growing, but they are still developing and I don’t want it to damage them. But I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I can’t afford to live anywhere else, honestly.”

— Teagan Medlin

Medlin prepares tea for herself using bottled water.

Ambitious programs aim to support Flint’s most vulnerable residents. Medlin is enrolled in Rx Kids, which “prescribes” a no-strings-attached payment of $1,500 for pregnant Flint residents and $500 for each month of the baby’s first year. A Medicaid initiative that covers youth up to age 21 and pregnant parents who were exposed to Flint’s water was extended in 2021 for another five years. And the Flint Registry connects people with health services while monitoring the effectiveness of efforts to prevent lead poisoning.

I’ve seen the struggle for Flint in a deep way. I’ve been on the streets. I’ve met a lot of people. There are beautiful people here and it’s a beautiful city. They deserve better. I don’t know if there is a way to make up for the actual damage that’s been done. The accountability needs to be there.”

— Teagan Medlin

Medlin and Audrina

Jacquinne Reynolds lives with unanswered questions about possible connections between the water and her health. She said she takes only quick showers these days, and never any baths.

Jacquinne Reynolds, 73, prepares for her care routine, which involves washing, brushing and moisturizing her scalp multiple times per week.
Reynolds holds her dreadlocks, which she believes fell out because of contaminated water.

Reynolds is the executive director of a local literacy organization, tutoring children and adults on reading, writing and African American culture. She said her hair began falling out during the water crisis. While she was diagnosed with alopecia, she said, another doctor later told her that the hair loss is likely connected to the water. She too feels like she’ll never know for sure. Because of the lack of information about the water at the time, she didn’t think to track her symptoms.

Going through this, I didn’t know that I was being affected. Nobody was saying anything to us. We didn’t know what was going on.”

— Jacquinne Reynolds

The water’s effect on hair and skin was among the earliest concerns raised by residents, though a direct correlation has been difficult to prove. A 2016 state and federal analysis — conducted after Flint switched back to Detroit’s system — identified nothing in the current water supply that affected hair loss. A survey of more than 300 residents by academic researchers found that more than 40% of respondents said they experienced hair loss beyond what they considered normal before the crisis. Black respondents reported significantly higher percentages of hair loss. The more physical symptoms respondents reported, the more likely they were to report psychological symptoms.

Reynolds inside the classroom where she tutors at Word of Life Christian Church

Having taught and tutored Flint families for decades, Reynolds feels the weight of the community’s unmet needs.

When are we, the citizens, going to be thought about? When are our children who were affected by the water and who are having learning difficulties in school going to receive what they need?”

— Jacquinne Reynolds

A photograph of Reynolds and her husband, Lawrence Reynolds, a retired pediatrician and former president and chief executive officer of Mott Children’s Health Center

Nearly 80,000 people now live in Flint, according to recent census data, a drop of about 20% in the past 10 years. Fifty-seven percent are Black, 34% are white and 4% are Hispanic. Median household income is $33,036. Nearly 38% are in poverty. Population loss and disinvestment make it difficult to maintain a water system, with fewer people paying for infrastructure designed for a much larger city.

Flint had almost 200,000 residents in 1960; it built water infrastructure to support 50,000 more, according to the city’s communications director. It connected to Detroit’s system in the first place because it expected continued growth. Vacancy can worsen water quality because water sits longer in pipes before reaching a tap — a problem made visible when metals from corroding pipes saturated the water more in some Flint neighborhoods than in others.

In addition to service-line replacement efforts, the city offers free filters to residents. Beyond legally mandated testing, a unique community water lab provides residents with a free way to learn about their water. Young people lead much of the work. As lab director and Flint City Council member Candice Mushatt put it, “We’re training the next generation to be prepared in a way that we were not.”

Results range from 0.031 parts per billion up to over 50 ppb of lead from water samples tested in Flint, according to Mushatt. Under federal law, if a community water system reaches 15 ppb of lead, based on the 90th percentile of samples, certain public health measures must be taken. No amount of lead is safe.

High school interns carefully transfer water from pipettes at the water lab.
A mural is reflected in a window as analytical chemist Cassidy Goyette reviews charts at the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Water Lab.

Flint residents have emphasized the importance of determining for themselves when justice has been done. In a 2020 paper, a cohort of community advocates wrote that they expect accountability, policy reform and community-driven investments. “And we will be insisting,” they wrote, “as always, that people ask us and our fellow residents before concluding that Flint has been made whole.”