Long before the rest of the country learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a few people – including two outraged moms, a professor, a water expert and a doctor – took matters into their own hands.
In September 2014, just five months after the water supply in Flint, Michigan, was switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River, LeeAnne Walters began to notice that something was off. Her hair was getting thin, her blood pressure was fluctuating, her children were breaking out in rashes and they even had trouble walking up steps.
But it wasn’t until December that the mother of four knew something was seriously wrong. Walters, 37, and her husband put their 4-year-old twins – Gavin and Garrett – to bed, loaded the dishwasher and turned on the faucet.
“It smelled like rotten eggs, and it was coming through our kitchen tap dark brown,” Walters tells PEOPLE. “We were confused. What the hell is this? What is coming through our tap? It was just crazy.”
Walters didn’t now it at the time, but it was lead.
The devoted mom didn’t just sit around. She got an employee of the city to test her tap water and soon found out that it measured nearly 400 parts per billion (of lead). The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 ppb.
After further testing, her worst nightmare came true: Her four kids had been exposed to lead – and Gavin had lead poisoning.
Walters gathered raw data reports and city of Flint operational reports and began to set up meetings with elected officials. She also organized educational meetings.
In January 2015, Walters met another key player in the water crisis, Melissa Mays – a fellow concerned mother in Flint. The duo joined forces through their group Water You Fighting For, a website to inform citizens of their research.
Walters hit a turning point in March when she called Miguel del Toral, a manager at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The ‘aha’ moment was when Miguel confirmed there was no corrosion control like I thought,” says Walters. “He was even stumped by how much lead was coming into my home.”
Soon after, Del Toral began to investigate the situation, conducting more tests and getting the attention of Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards and local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.
“That’s when it started to break open,” she says.
Miguel del Toral
Miguel del Toral heard LeeAnne Walter’s concerns loud and clear.
“If it weren’t for LeeAnne, this may have gone on a lot longer than it did,” he told ABC News.
Del Toral, a manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, authorized a report in July 2015, noting the high lead levels in Flint.
The EPA had previously said that there was likely something wrong with Walters’ pipes that was causing lead in her water, but del Toral told the news outlet that she has plastic pipes, which could not cause the problems she was experiencing.
“They certainly didn’t take the actions that I think would have been needed to mitigate the problem,” he said.
In a leaked memo written by del Toral, it was revealed that the city s drinking water was not treated for corrosion control which caused the lead to leach out of the pipes.
“I think you go back to the beginning and say this should have never happened in the first place,” he told ABC. “It’s inconceivable that you would allow a system with lead service lines – a large system – not to have a treatment in place.”
In 2015, Melissa Mays and her family started experiencing strange symptoms. Her family started to get rashes on their faces, Mays hair started to fall out and her back and muscles began to ache.
When Mays sought an explanation for her family’s ailments, she learned that they had all tested positive for longterm heavy metals poisoning. Mays then pushed others in the community to get tested as well.
She held protests, took advantage of her husband’s graphic arts background to create flyers, posters and the website she started with Walters – Water You Fighting For.
“My biggest concern now is that there are still children drinking this water,” Mays tells PEOPLE at her home in Flint. “I am terrified of that. We are trying to do everything we can to reach everyone so that no child is drinking this contaminated water and then loses their future, too.”
She adds: “No matter how big the government is, you can still fight it. In less than a year, we took down a weak mayor and a corrupt government. If you’re an elected official, you take care of your people, not yourself.”
Dr. Marc Edwards
Dr. Marc Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech, became involved with the Flint water crisis in April 2015. A concerned Walters called him after state and local officials failed to respond to her concerns.
Walters sent him samples of her water, and he immediately knew he had to help.
“I was the only one who could it,” Dr. Edwards tells PEOPLE. “What you see unfolding in Flint is the realization that this is not a failure of government – it’s a betrayal of the people of Flint and elsewhere by government.”
When Edwards shared his findings with the Environmental Protection Agency and was told everything in Flint was fine, he decided to put together a group of researchers from Virginia Tech for further research. He collected hundreds of samples, used tens of thousands of dollars of his own money and set up a website to update people on his findings.
“We knew that the system had failed the residences of Flint and that no one would help them at that point,” he says. “So, we did. We went all in for Flint.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
When a good friend of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s told her that she heard the city of Flint wasn’t using corrosion control chemicals in its water, the pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital was immediately alarmed.
“She said to me, ‘Have you heard about this? Can’t you look at the lead levels for the kids?’ “Hanna-Attisha tells PEOPLE. “As a pediatrician, when you hear anything about lead, you act. We know lead – it’s a well-known potent neurotoxin.”
For a year and half, Hanna-Attisha had heard rumblings about issues with the city’s water.
“We were told that the water was safe. So just like we were reassured by the government, we would reassure our patients,” she says. “But when I heard about the lead, you don t mess with lead.”
When the country and state wouldn t give her their lead data and “there were roadblocks at every corner,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha took the serious matter into her own hands.
She looked at her own results from previous blood work done at her hospital and saw startling results: The percentage of kids with lead poisoning had doubled in the city and in some neighborhoods it had tripled.
She shared her findings with her administration and other pediatricians in the community.
“We had a press conference. You don’t normally share research at press conferences, but we ethically, morally and professionally were obligated to alert the community to what was going on,” she says.
Afterwards, she says she was “attacked by the state” and was told, “You’re wrong, you’re an unfortunate researcher, you’re causing hysteria.”
But the attacks didn’t last long. Just two weeks later, the Genesee County Health Department held a press conference and declared a public health emergency.
Going forward, Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s mission is to help the people in Flint who will have irreversible damage from lead poisoning.
She launched the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, which is an effort by Michigan State University, Hurley Children’s Hospital and the Genessee County Health Department.
“The initiative is bringing in incredible brains,” she says. “We have a lot of research projects to assess the impact of this exposure.”
Hanna-Attisha says she also has hope.
“Everybody was in the right place at the right time,” she says. “There are bright spots. There are so many champions here. It takes a village to save a village. This place is quite the village.”
• With additional reporting by Ellen Piligian