Local Teens Help Solve Flint's Water Crisis with New Lab and Water Testing: 'It Gives Me Hope'

The Flint Community Water Lab opened in September, six years after a switch in the city's water supply caused widespread lead and E.coli contamination.

Flint Community Lab
Photo: Flint Community Lab

During the summer of 2014, thousands of people in the close-knit, industrial city of Flint, Michigan — “Flintstoners,” as they proudly call themselves — saw their lives change in an instant.

In an effort to save money, the city switched its water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River. Residents immediately complained about the water’s smell and taste and reported worrying symptoms including hair loss, rashes, and seizures.

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. Elected officials denied for over a year that the city’s water was also contaminated with lead, but they finally acknowledged that the water wasn’t safe in September 2015.

The crisis is still fresh in the minds of many residents who continue to experience long-term health effects and are wary of their water.

Now, a group of local high school and college students is hoping to restore trust in the water system among their neighbors through the new McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab, also known as the Flint Community Water Lab. For the next three years, they will work alongside chemists from the University of Michigan to test the water in more than 20,000 Flint homes and share the results.

The lab began as a pilot program in 2018 between the Flint Development Center and regional non-profit organization Freshwater Future and officially opened last month with the support of donors, including the University of Michigan, Thermo Fisher Scientific and The Nalgene Water Fund.

Markeysa Peterson, 17, tells PEOPLE she joined the lab to help people struggling in the wake of the crisis. Her nephew Curtis was diagnosed with autism due to lead contamination.

“We have to go through the everyday struggle of teaching him how to develop and function,” she says. “The crisis has made me a bit mentally distraught — everybody in Flint is struggling because we don’t have the attention or support that we deserve.”

In August, Michigan announced that it would pay $600 million to the victims of the Flint Water Crisis, but some residents say money doesn’t solve leftover issues from the crisis.

“Everything from the water plant to our tap needs to be completed replaced in order for us to feel safe,” says Carma Lewis, who has spent most of her life in Flint. “We’re sending our babies into these old school buildings where they still don’t have safe water and they’re using bottled water.”

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Flint Community Lab
Flint Community Lab

Lewis points out that having local teens and leaders running the lab is especially important to her, and she plans on getting her water tested regularly.

“It gives me hope,” she says. “I have more faith in kids who grew up here testing our water than the actual government.”

When the crisis first began in Flint, Nevaeh Lay says she didn’t fully comprehend the severity of the crisis.

“I went to a school outside of Flint where I didn’t have to boil water or drink bottled water, but at home, I would get yelled at for touching the sink or even trying to wash my hands,” she recalls.

Working in the lab, Lay adds, “gives me the opportunity to understand why the crisis is such a big deal for our community and why there needs to be a change in how we recover.”

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The Flint Community Water Lab is named in honor of McKenzie Patrice Croom, a young Flint resident born with seizures. Her family said her condition was exacerbated by her exposure to Flint’s drinking water, and McKenzie died two years ago.

Michael Harris, McKenzie’s grandfather and a lifelong Flint resident, hopes the lab will inspire young people to pursue careers in STEM as chemists, biologists and more.

“For me, it's about making sure the young people in this community understand that they’ve got power and that this water situation does not define them, but it can make them better people,” Harris, 53, says.

In addition to water testing, the lab will encourage resident outreach and provide access to social services to promote public health and healing.

“We are still going through this crisis,” Dominique Strong, the lab’s community outreach coordinator, says. “However, we are showing that we are strong and resilient.”

Adds the 35 year old: “Despite the adversities that we face, we will be ‘Flinstoners,’ we will come together as come as a community and move Flint forward by changing the narrative with the water crisis.

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