During the summer of 2014, Melissa Mays had no clue why her hair started falling out and her back and muscles ached. Then one night, she had a seizure in her sleep.
Mays did know one thing about her symptoms: They began after Flint, Michigan’s water supply was switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River in April of that year.
That summer, she also ran a bath for her niece and immediately noticed the color of the water coming out of her bathtub faucet was “pure yellow.”
“It just kept on getting worse and worse over time,” Mays tells PEOPLE.
Tests ordered in August revealed E. coli was in Flint’s water, and parts of the city were ordered to boil the water before drinking it.
But it was just the beginning of the city’s devastating water crisis. Elected officials denied for over a year that the city’s water was also contaminated with lead, but they finally admitted that the water wasn’t safe in September 2015.
Today, Mays, her husband and three children all suffer from longterm heavy metals poisoning. Their symptoms include anemia, memory loss, brain fog and fatigue. Mays also has diverticulitis, a digestive disease, which she blames on the lead.
“It’s come to the point where it’s taken over our entire lives,” says Mays, who also thinks she might now have lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. “If we are not at the doctor, we’re in bed, worried about bone loss, bone breakage, dental issues.”
One of Many
The Mays family’s story is a common one in the city of Flint.
LeeAnne Walters, who joined forces with Mays to create Water You Fighting For, a website to inform citizens of their continued research into the water crisis, has had similar experiences.
The 37-year-old mother of four began to notice that her hair was thinning, she had erratic blood pressure and her children started to get rashes over their body soon after she gave them baths.
One of her kids got so sick that he missed a month of school, and “at one point, they told us he had cancer because they didn’t know what was going on.”
She had an employee of the city test her tap water, which revealed it had nearly 400 parts per billion (of lead). The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 ppb.
Walters then rushed to get her children tested and the results confirmed all four had been exposed to lead.
For other mothers, including Darlene Bello, 41, the unknown is frightening – and the guilt is the most painful.
“My biggest concern right now is that my 5-year-old might have lead poisoning,” she tells PEOPLE. “This is something I couldn’t prevent. Parents are on earth to protect their kids. That’s what I’m going to be mad about. I couldn’t protect him from getting lead.”
Looking to the Future
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, says that the instances of lead poisoning doubled – and in some cases tripled – in some areas of the city after the water supply was switched.
“We worry about lead because of what it does to your whole life course trajectory,” she tells PEOPLE. “It impacts a lot. It drops your IQ. So imagine what was potentially done to an entire population of children. We shifted that IQ curve down. We could have lost the next kid who had a cure for cancer.”
She says that all of the kids affected, which could be around 9,000, might need special education services, and while children in Flint are still getting tested for lead, she stresses that the results don t accurately portray how sick they could be.
“Lead in your blood only lasts 20 to 30 days,” she says. “All of the testing that is going on now doesn t reflect past exposure. It doesn t tell you what the levels were when this was at its worst.”
That’s why Dr. Hanna-Attisha can’t predict the future of their well-being.
“We won’t see the [developmental issues] yet,” she says.
• With additional reporting by Ellen Piligian