Mckenzie Patrice-Croom was born in Flint, Michigan on January 31, 2017, right in the middle of the Flint water crisis. She had epilepsy and was regularly in and out of the hospital. And because of the water crisis, her parents faced challenges bathing her, making her formula, and mixing her medicines. On June 19, 2018, after only eighteen months of life, McKenzie died. Her grandfather, Michael Harris, believes the water crisis contributed to Mckenzieâ€™s death. â€œShe passed away after living a wonderful year on this planet, but it was a painful year,â€ Harris said. â€œShe was just one of the many children whoâ€™ve been affected by the water in this community.â€
The story is familiar by now: In April 2014, to save money, Flint began sourcing its drinking water from the Flint River. (Previously, it had been hooked into the city of Detroit, which gets its water from Lake Huron.) The river water was highly corrosive and reacted with Flintâ€™s pipes, pumping lead into homes and effectively poisoning the city. People complained of smelly, dark, bad-tasting water. Doctors found elevated lead levels in kids. Finally, in 2015, after almost a year and a half, the city switched back to the Detroit system. But that wasnâ€™t the end. As Anna Clark reported last month, even now, â€œmany of the most important reforms at the center of the cityâ€™s water crisis remain undone.â€
Harris, a lifelong Flint resident, refers to himself as a â€œFlintstone at heart.â€ Watching the city he loves harm his grandchild was painful, he told me. He wanted to do something to honor the memory of his granddaughter while also serving the children and families still living in the city, where many people have lost faith in the institutions meant to protect them. So he and several others in the community collaborated to launch the Mckenzie Patrice-Croom Water Lab, which provides free water testing for Flint residents.
The lab, which bills itself as â€œthe first community-based laboratory of its kind in the world,â€ aims to test about half of Flintâ€™s households over the next three years, according to Jill Ryan, executive director of Freshwater Futures, a nonprofit that is collaborating with Harris. The lab is run by recent University of Michigan-Flint graduate Alexandria Schipansky and staffed by Flint residents Daryl Sparks, who works as a student coordinator, and Levi Castonguay, a laboratory assistant. Local middle school and high school students receive science education in the lab, and high school and college students receive job training and internship credit.
The project is more than just a water testing lab, Harris told me. Itâ€™s a place for Flint residents to begin to rebuild trust in their community. â€œEven now, after all this time, thereâ€™s really no place for us to really go. Youâ€™ve gotta call these government entities who may or may not show up,â€ he said. â€œBut now youâ€™ve got a center, right in the neighborhood, that you can walk to, and weâ€™ll make sure you know exactly whatâ€™s happening with your water. That is extremely empowering for us.â€
Flint residents donâ€™t have a lot of reasons to trust their government, which caused the water crisis in 2014 and failed to manage it effectively. Work to replace lead lines in the city is still not complete, and government-led efforts to reassure city residents of the safety of their water through testing are notoriously spotty and unreliable. Tap water in Flintâ€™s school buildings remains undrinkable, and the city has repeatedly failed to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act by not collecting enough valid water samples.
Itâ€™s not just the government. Many celebrities and corporations donated money or other resources, like bottled water, but most Flint residents I talked to also donâ€™t believe an outside savior is the answer to their problems. (One example is Elon Musk, who infamously tweeted that he would help pay for â€œfixingâ€ any house with elevated lead levels in the city. That didnâ€™t happen. Musk did eventually pay for water filtration stations in the cityâ€™s schools, but point-of-use filters amounted to little more than a bandaid.) Disaster relief is no substitute for effective, functioning public infrastructure.
In January, a federal judge granted preliminary approval for a $641 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the State of Michigan, providing for cash payments to affected residents. The payments focus on benefiting those who were minors while exposed to the tainted water. Adults will need to provide proof of injury through bone scans, which some have argued is an unnecessary burden to place on people who have already suffered so much. The amount of the payments, spread over one hundred thousand people, is yet to be determined, but will â€œnever be enough to compensate (residents) for what happened,â€ according to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Only now, nearly seven years since the switch to the Flint River, are government officials being held accountable. In January, the Michigan attorney generalâ€™s office brought criminal charges ranging from willful neglect to involuntary manslaughter against state and city elected officials who were in power at the timeâ€”including former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, his state Public Health Director Nicholas Lyon, and six others.
Harris is glad some people are finally being held accountable, but he says itâ€™s inadequate and disproportionate to the amount of suffering that government decisions brought to the crisis. â€œYouâ€™re talking about people who were tone deafâ€”and Iâ€™m using a light wordâ€”who could care less about us in this community. Their names are infamous in this community. It doesnâ€™t solve the problem, but doggone it, it feels like justice. Iâ€™m not saying that Snyder was charged with what I think he should have been charged with, but at least he was charged, and to see that mugshot, to see him go through an ounce of the pound of pain weâ€™ve had, is some kind of solace.â€
Most people in Flint still donâ€™t drink the water, Harris said, despite the city having been in compliance with federal and state drinking water standards since July of 2016. â€œI wouldnâ€™t recommend it,â€ he said. â€œBut how do you bring that trust back? Do you have lead in your water? Do you have lead in your home? How do you know?â€
Harris wanted to find a solution, a way to rebuild a sense of confidence so that Flint residents could regain their sense of agency and begin rebuilding their community. And he knew that the communityâ€”not the government or out-of-state billionaires like Muskâ€”was where he needed to begin. â€œWeâ€™re strong and resilient people,â€ he said. â€œAnd instead of trying to make excuses about whatâ€™s happening, we wanted to make solutions happen for young people here.â€
The idea for a community water lab came out of a water visioning session with Flint youth at the Flint Development Center in 2018, led by the nonprofit Freshwater Future. â€œI noticed that they had this huge water filtration system on the wall, and no one was using water out of that. And the kids were really upset if there wasnâ€™t a lot of bottled water available,â€ Freshwater Future Executive Director Jill Ryan said. â€œAnd so I started having these conversations with the kids and the adults about, â€˜Do you ever think youâ€™ll use this water again?â€™ And [they said], â€˜No, no, this is poison.â€™â€
Ryan, Michael Harris, and others began surveying and speaking with community members about their confidence in the Flint water system. They found that eighty-six percent of surveyed residents did not feel their home tap water was safe to drink, and sixty-seven percent would not drink it even with a filter. Nearly a third of surveyed residents did not have a filter in their home. â€œOne of the problems was nobody trusted any of the labs, because theyâ€™re all affiliated with the state,â€ Ryan told me. â€œAnd they told us that to move this trust issue forward, we have to bring in the youth.â€
So, in 2018, Freshwater Future and the Flint Development Center launched a pilot community water lab. They trained fifteen students between the ages of fifteen and eighteen to collect water samples properly, and sent them into the community. A lab at the University of Michigan analyzed the samples and provided residents with their results, as well as information about what happened in Flint and how to install, maintain and use filters. â€œWe would make sure everybody had filters. Some people didnâ€™t have faucets that would accept filters, so we even provided faucets,â€ Ryan said. â€œIf people were allowing us into their homes, we wanted to make sure they had what they needed.â€
The pilot lab collected samples from around one hundred and fifty households, which represent a tiny fraction of the more than forty thousand households in the city. The action level for leadâ€”meaning the threshold at which a remediation response is requiredâ€”underÂ Michiganâ€™s Lead and Copper RuleÂ is fifteen ppb (parts per billion). That number will drop to twelve ppb in 2025, which will make it the nationâ€™s most stringest standard. Most samples collected by the community water lab measured less than one ppb, well below the action level threshold. (Public health experts caution thatÂ no amount of lead is safeÂ to consume.)
â€œPeople have been left mentally and emotionally at a standstill with this crisis,â€ said Daryl Sparks, who serves as the labâ€™s student coordinator. â€œWeâ€™re seeing something that feels like progress. So to come into these homes and see the look on peopleâ€™s faces when youâ€™re telling them that, â€˜oh, hereâ€™s what we are, hereâ€™s what weâ€™re gonna do.â€™ They instantly light up, they feel better. Theyâ€™re happy to just see that this is happening. And they love to see that itâ€™s coming from young people from their own community.â€
When the pilot ended, the students presented their findings to the community during a hot dog roast at the Flint Development Center, and brought participants in to talk to them about their results. â€œWe had one mom come inâ€¦She had four little kids with her, and you could tell she didnâ€™t quite trust us,â€ Ryan told me. â€œAnd unfortunately she had a relatively high test result, and she didnâ€™t have a filter. She had a little boy that had the rashes that come with that water on his face, and she was so upset and crying.â€
The students were able to demonstrate that water filters made a difference as well as help people acquire and use the filters. Like in the case of the skeptical woman with four children: â€œSo we went out that day and bought her a bunch of bottled water and a filter and made sure she had access to the services that are available,â€ Ryan said. â€œItâ€™s not that services werenâ€™t available in Flint, itâ€™s just that people didnâ€™t know about it or trust it.â€
People continued to ask for testing, Ryan said. So she and Harris sat down again with community leaders to talk about a long-term solution. â€œAnd what we decided would be better than doing it with an outside lab would be to build one where the community would own it, and the community would run it,â€ Ryan said. Ryan secured $750,000 in funding from donors, including the University of Michigan, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and The Nalgene Water Fund, to launch the Mckenzie Patrice-Croom Community Water Lab in late 2020.
The projectâ€™s primary goal is to rebuild individual residentsâ€™ trust in their water. That will likely involve helping those residents whose tests come back with higher results figure out where the lead is coming fromâ€”whether from the service line or from an interior line or fixtureâ€”and helping them mitigate the problem. â€œThe whole goal [is that] if there is lead in those homes, then we want to be able to help them remediate that,â€ Ryan told me. â€œItâ€™s really important to be able to ensure for residents that their water is safe, and if itâ€™s not, to help them find resources and tools, so they can fix it.â€
Things have gotten off to a slow start, thanks in part to the pandemic. Since launching in December, the lab has processed only twenty-two samples, and itâ€™s uncovered nothing concerning yetâ€”so far results have fallen between 0.2 and 0.7 ppb. In recent weeks testing and outreach have been ramping up, and Ryan expects the volume to pick up moving into spring.
The Flint community lab project has lofty goals, which exceed the mandate of a traditional water lab. Michigan water expert and consultant Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering LLC, pointed out that in addition to being a proficient lab, the project plans to exist as a social support service, interpreting results for individuals and the community, connecting clients with resources and services, and training future water professionals in the community. Itâ€™s a tall order.
An immediate challenge to the projectâ€™s goal of building trust is that the lab is not yet certified by the state or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Certification requires the lab to process a certain number of audited proficiency samples, among other requirements. For Betanzo, acquiring basic certification is absolutely critical for establishing trust. â€œThey need to have the proper expertise of a labâ€”making sure theyâ€™re certified for the drinking water analytical methods they are offering,â€ she told me. â€œA lab can turn out a lot of data and say that data were produced using certified methods, but if the sampling program isnâ€™t designed in a scientifically valid way, then results can be misused.â€
Because the primary goal of the lab is to build trust, Ryan said the primary metric of success will be the number of residents who, before coming to the lab, did not feel comfortable drinking their own water, and, after having had their interaction with the lab, do feel comfortable. â€œIf a family canâ€™t use the running water in their home, itâ€™s a great harm,â€ Ryan said. â€œWe really want to try to remove that harm for people, but we know that itâ€™s a process.â€
Reporting for this story was funded in part by a grant from theÂ Solutions Journalism Network.Â
Correction 2/23/20: A previous version of this article stated that the current lead action level in Michigan is 12 ppb. It is currently 15 ppb. It doesn’t drop to 12 ppb until 2025.