Joe Clements moved to Flint, Michigan, in the fall of 2014 to be closer to his newfound family, including a recently discovered half-sister he’d found through DNA testing.
The joy of finding a new family was short-lived, however. In early 2015—after months of drinking tap water in Flint that epidemiologists later confirmed was loaded with lead—he started getting sick, suffering from irritability, short-term memory loss, insomnia, neurological tremors, lethargy, abdominal pain, and severe weight loss.
Clements began to drink even more water, hoping to flush his kidneys free of disease. City and state officials had assured families the water was safe. In June 2016, though, Clements was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer affecting his kidney, urethra, and bladder.
By the end of the summer of 2017, he was dead, a victim of kidney cancer.
Clements’ case, unfortunately, is not unusual: He, his family, and 100,000 other residents of this impoverished town at the epicenter of the Rust Belt drank water that was unsafe, despite official statements otherwise. Environmental and water resource students led by professor Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech found lead levels were 19 times higher than normal tap water in the period between spring 2014 and fall 2015, when the city unhooked from Detroit water and used the cheaper option of using Flint River water without adequate corrosive treatments.
Clements’ posthumous champion is Cynthia Lindsey, an attorney leading part of a class action suit led by Florida-based Ted Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, which specializes in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases. Clements’ recently discovered half-sister, Randye Bullock, researched the symptoms of lead poisoning, identifying them in Clements; she then contacted Lindsey to represent Clements—and other Flint victims—in the class action suit.
Lindsey believes lead in the Flint water caused his fatal condition.
“Joe and his entire family have been ‘poisoned’ by lead and other chemicals in the water they consumed,” Lindsey told The Daily Beast. “This became a living hell. It is certainly not how Joe wanted or intended to spend his later years. Joe believes that the way Flint residents were treated was based upon racism.”
She cited a Michigan Department of Civil Rights year-long investigation that concluded a 131-page report saying the Flint water crisis was a result of systematic racism because a disproportionate majority of the afflicted were African Amercan and lived in the 48503 zip code, the poorest in the city (PDF).
Twenty-three law firms representing at least 9,000 people are consolidated into 10 class actions and more than 50 personal injury lawsuits into one case filed in federal court on behalf of Flint residents and businesses allegedly harmed by exposure to toxic level of lead and other hazards in the city’s drinking water.
Lindsey and other attorneys contend the water crisis represented “a serious breach of trust and an unacceptable neglect of responsibility by those charged with serving these communities,” according to a press statement. Two books, a made-for-television movie, and a couple documentaries have chronicled Flint’s travails.
It’s a drastic downturn for a city that was once heralded as one of the wealthiest cities in Michigan in the 1980s. General Motors Corporation alone supplied thousands of high-paying jobs, along with supplier plants and ancillary services. But jobs plummeted when customers began looking abroad toward global automakers like Volvo, Toyota, and Honda. That sparked change, with Michael Moore producing the documentary Roger and Me in 1989, exploring Flint’s growing poverty rate.
Then the spring of 2014 happened. By then, Flint had a 45 percent poverty rate—according to the U.S. Census—and was put under an emergency management system authorized by Gov. Rick Snyder. Snyder was newly elected and took over the city’s finances after a state-projected $25 million deficit. The water supply fund alone stood at $9 million in the red. To reduce some of the debt, the emergency manager recommended switching from the more costly water from Detroit Water and Sewer Department to local sourcing from the Flint River. Corrosion projection was deemed unnecessary and expensive.
Within days of the city’s switch to Flint River water, spigots released yellow, bleach-smelling water with a high lead content. Hard-scrabble neighborhoods were hit especially hard, because service lines to many of these homes were made of lead. Because the water wasn’t properly treated with anti-corrosive chemicals, lead, iron, and chlorine leached into the water supply.
The problem continued for almost two years with a steady outcry from citizens, media, pastors, and health professionals—with barely any fixes.
In the meantime, the class action lawsuit, Flint Water Cases, No. 16-cv-10444 (PDF), is slowly winding its way through federal courts, with litigants seeking a Flint Victims Compensation Fund for financial assistance, to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor, and establishing an ongoing medical team to provide health care and other critical services. This would also repair private property so any remnants of lead would be gone.
Meanwhile, medical professionals from Hurley and McLaren hospitals and student nurses and doctors from neighboring universities are stepping in to help at frequent health fairs and community clinics.
Patrick Hawkins, Ph.D., a nurse educator for Michigan State University, helps coordinate awareness sessions for the general population and takes a special interest in identifying kidney problems in Flint residents.
“Even before the lead crisis, Flint residents had 2.5 times the national rate of kidney disease,” Hawkins said. “No one knows precisely why. But I fear it will go much higher as we learn more about lead exposure. Lead moves out of the bloodstream and attacks organs. We will see higher and higher incidents of chronic diseases.”
Lead-related kidney disease, medically referred to as nephrotoxicity, could cause hypertension, gout, and anemia. In advanced cases, affected individuals lose function of their kidneys to clean the blood. Hawkins tests for high blood pressure and the possibilities of diabetes. If he finds abnormalities he refers people to physicians and clinics capable of measuring for albumin-to-creatinine levels in the urine and prescribing proper medication.
“We work to establish trust with people. We make sure they know the tests are free, no hidden agenda. We live here, these are neighbors, friends, family, and countrymen. They deserve our dedication,” Hawkins said. He has allies within the state government of Michigan working to help seniors because so much of the early attention focused on children’s health.
Fruits and vegetables promote healing, according to Hawkins, who notes that when there is healthy food in the body, it is more difficult for lead to be absorbed. Calcium-rich food, such as canned salmon, sardines, leafy green vegetables, and milk help strengthen the body’s natural immune system. Iron also blocks lead absorption, such as dried fruits, beans, lentils, and lean red meat. Foods that aren’t processed or doused in sugar lessen the risk of diabetes in adults and children—one of the leading contributors of kidney disease.
The Michigan State Extension Service even goes so far as to conduct cooking demonstrations to show people how to eat healthy, with some groups passing out plastic grabbers to seniors with arthritis so they can take the top off water bottles.
Many undocumented immigrants live in affected communities with corrosive lead pipes and shun medical care for fear of being discovered. According to Hawkins, they are often more comfortable with giving their name and address to the church, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Clio, just outside of Flint, instead of an outside agency. More often than not, Hawkins said, lead levels come back actionable, and the church contacts the citizens.
Persistence in identifying kidney ailment is imperative because kidney disease is an equal destroyer. More than 660,000 people in the United States have kidney disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases—including 468,000 on dialysis to filter wastes and water from the blood. Lead poisoning may represent only 1 percent of kidney problems nationally, but in Flint, activists fear the rates could end up being much higher.
The state of Michigan has agreed to allocate $87 million to the city of Flint to identify and replace at least 18,000 unsafe water lines by 2020 under a settlement for one federal lawsuit in the spring of 2017. The state has agreed to pay $895,000 to plaintiffs in a 2016 lawsuit but a larger group of citizens continue to seek litigation.
Seniors are at a higher risk for becoming sick from the water, but money to help them is limited, according to Kathryn Boles, director of the Genesee County Area Agency on Aging. “The University of Michigan contacted me early this year and wanted to do a white paper on how the water crisis affected seniors in terms of liver, kidney, and cognitive skills, but they didn’t get the grant. Can’t do research without resources,” she said.
Some efforts are underway. The Michigan Health Endowment Fund, set up after the Flint water crisis was validated, pays community workers to help provide for seniors and others. Plumbers visit homes of those on limited incomes to replace dishwashers, water heaters, and kitchen pipes adversely affected by lead. Groups continue to drop off water bottles to homes but the numbers are dwindling as more pipes are restored to functionality.
“AARP conducted a needs assessment in 2016 on our behalf. We are doing a whole lot of outreach. But information changes so rapidly week to week that it is tough to keep seniors informed,” Boles said. People want rides to health fairs and clinics, water bottles delivered to their front door, and new water filters because they don’t trust the water.
Flint residents continue to suffer, according to Lindsey, the attorney for the Flint class action suit whose legal brief has thousands of alleged victims—including Elnora Carthan, who puts two cases of water in the hallway outside the bathroom to make sure she showers with a fluid she feels safe using.
“The water didn’t all of a sudden go bad, it kept getting worse,” says Carthan, 72. She worries about kidney disease in addition to ailments that already beset her.
“About eight months after the city switched its water source I noticed symptoms that weren’t ordinary. I’d take a shower, dry off, and five or six minutes later I’d itch, itch, itch. I’d come up the stairs and be tired. I’m always exhausted and now I’m having lung congestion and memory loss. I don’t even know the extent of damage to my body.”