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Flint Families Make Tough Sacrifices Amid Contaminated Water


What was the first thing you did this morning? Chances are you used water to do it. But if the water coming out of your faucet isn't safe, what precautions would you take just do the most basic of tasks? That's the issue people in Flint, Mich.. are struggling with because, as we've heard, they're dealing with these high levels of lead in the city's tap water. Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris followed one Flint resident to find out just how stressful avoiding tap water can be.

KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: Inside the bathroom at She'a Cobb's house, there's a stack of towels wrapped with a bow, a bag of seashells and a bright green fake plant.

SHE'A COBB: This is my bathroom. My mom is a really great interior designer.

NORRIS: This is where Cobb has mastered the two-minute shower. First, she's got to get the perfect temperature.

COBB: So I jump in real quick, get wet real fast and I turn this head away from me.

NORRIS: She pushes the showerhead aside so the water does not hit her and instead streams down the wall. Then she scrubs herself.

COBB: Do the soap thing, you know, make sure I get my toes. And then turn it back on and rinse off.

NORRIS: That short shower is not relaxing. She can't use Flint's water because it might have high levels of lead. The city switched it's water source from Detroit to the Flint River to save money almost two years ago. That new water was more corrosive and wasn't treated properly. It corroded the pipes, which caused lead to leach into the water. Thirty-one-year-old Cobb is a bus driver. She lives with her daughter and mother in Flint, which is a struggling blue-collar town where 40 percent of people live in poverty. Cobb's family has been buying a lot of bottled water lately. In fact, they brush their teeth using one small container - a few mouthfuls per person. They do this because Flint residents have been told not to drink or cook with tap water and to use lead filters and bottled water instead, which means Cobb has to stop doing something she loves.

COBB: Man, I love cooking, you know, vegetables, and I like baking my chicken, you know, it used to be so juicy. And my daughter love it. And cheese, eggs and turkey bacon (laughter) I love cooking. I do not cook now 'cause I can't use the water.

NORRIS: These days, Cobb eats almost exclusively at restaurants, usually outside the city limits. At every restaurant, she quizzes the staff where they get their water from. If it's from Flint, she doesn't drink it because she doesn't trust it. Cobb snacks on crackers and granola bars throughout the day. She rations her bottled water intake and has been getting headaches because she's dehydrated. She's even stopped exercising because that takes extra water, extra water she doesn't have. Residents can pick up one free case of bottled water per day at fire stations around town, given out by the National Guard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, can I see some ID please? All right, where would you like your water?

COBB: Behind me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right. All right, aave a great day.

COBB: Thanks.

NORRIS: This was the first time Cobb had stopped here. Normally the line is long. Cobb says she just doesn't trust the government.

COBB: Oh, man I hate them (laughter) because before this happened I lived my life every day with no worry and no stress about whether or not what I ate and how I lived and what I did was going to actually affect my long - the longevity of my life.

NORRIS: Now she thinks about this stuff all the time

COBB: I want to know when they going to fix infrastructure of the city. When are you all going to fix the pipes? Like, you can only give out bottled water for so long.

NORRIS: Cobb says people in Flint want new pipes. So they can live like anyone else in any other American city. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris in Flint, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyle Norris got her start in radio as a Michigan Radio intern. Her features have appeared on The Environment Report, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, World Vision Report, Justice Talking, and The Health Show.