Flint residents grapple with water crisis 9 years later: 'No justice'

Nakiya Wakes said the water crisis has had a lasting impact on her family.

April 21, 2023, 1:46 PM

Nine years after the water contamination in Flint, Michigan, devastated communities, some residents of the majority-Black city say they are still grappling with long-term health issues.

Nakiya Wakes, whose son Jaylen was five and daughter Nashauna was 13 during the water crisis, told ABC News' GMA3 in an interview that aired on Thursday that exposure to lead has had a lasting impact on her family.

"Nine years later and here we are with no justice for Flint," Wakes said.

Nakiya Wakes speaks with ABC News' GMA3 about the impact of the Flint water crisis.
ABC News

Lead and Legionella bacteria leached into the tap water of nearly 100,000 residents between 2014 and 2015. The Legionella bacteria, a type of pneumonia-causing bacteria, killed 12 people, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The water switch was one of the sources for Legionnaire’s, according to the National Institute of Health.

Wakes said that while her son was diagnosed with ADHD prior to lead exposure, he now has additional special needs and has developed serious behavioral issues, leading him to get suspended from school more than 50 times.

"He started throwing pencils. He started messing with the kids, and I'm like, well, that's really not my son, so it's something going on," Wakes said.

ABC News has spoken with multiple mothers who claim that their children are still suffering from the effects of the water crisis nine years ago.

The Flint water crisis, which prompted national outrage and spotlighted the issue of water contamination in the United States, began after unelected emergency managers switched the water supply from Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River to save money in the economically depressed city, according to Orr.

According to medical documents reviewed by ABC News, Jaylen's lead blood count level in 2015 tested at what the Centers of Disease Control considers "high" and by age seven, medical tests showed that Jaylen had intellectual disabilities and was labeled a "non-reader."

Wakes said that her daughter Nashauna had a miscarriage at 18 years old and that she had her own miscarriages, losing twins in 2015 and then losing another set of twins in 2017.

According to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician and a key whistleblower in the early days of the water crisis, while it will never be proven that the Flint water crisis caused health issues for Wakes and her family, scientific research shows that lead exposure is associated with increases in the risk for fetal death and behavioral issues in children.

Hanna-Attisha told ABC News' GMA3 in an interview that aired on Thursday that exposure to lead impacts a child's intellectual development.

"When a population of children is exposed to lead, that whole IQ curve shifts to the left … and you have more kids who may end up needing special ed," she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency established the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991, which established a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) of zero for lead.

"The MCLG is zero because there is no level of exposure to lead that is without risk," according to the EPA.

The EPA also has a lead action level guideline, which measures the effectiveness of the corrosion control treatment in water systems – a water treatment that helps control the level of lead.

"Lead is a poison, it can mess up the future of children, and there's no safe level of lead," Hanna-Attisha said.

The EPA's action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion; meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that lead levels in school drinking water should not exceed 1 part per billion.

According to the American Chemical Society, the action level for lead in water was 26.8 parts per billion from an August 2015 survey of 268 Flint homes. That's nearly twice the amount of the EPA's recommended level.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician and Associate Dean for Public Health at Michigan State University.
ABC News

"There's no way that I would even fish in that water and eat the fish that come out of there," she added.

"It leaves me in a state of fear and also angry because like I said, I couldn't even protect my own kids from this," Wakes said.

Eighteen months after switching to the Flint River for the city's water supply, the state of Michigan switched back to Lake Huron in October 2015.

Flint residents won a $626 million class action lawsuit in 2021 against the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, an engineering company and a hospital.

When asked for comment by ABC News, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy told ABC News in a statement, in part, that the EGLE "understands the longstanding concerns of Flint residents and remains committed to rebuilding trust and confidence in their drinking water system."

For Wakes, she says her own experience has made her passionate about educating others and fighting for clean water by working with nonprofits and doing advocacy work around the country, including the White House.

"For us to move [to Flint], and then just get poisoned and you think I'm going to just lay down? No, I'm gonna fight for me and my kids," she said.