The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flint residents too scared of the water to wash. That’s making them sick.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder drinks filtered tap water with Flint resident Cheryl Hill while listening to her concerns about the city’s ongoing water crisis at her home on April 18. (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

Residents of Flint, Mich., are still afraid of the city’s water.

That fear, caused by the 2015 findings of elevated lead levels in the town’s water supply, had led many of the town’s residents to forgo some basic hygiene, such as washing their hands or bathing with water — even though the federal government has deemed the water safe when using a water filter.

“People aren’t bathing because they’re scared,” Jim Henry, Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor, told CNN. “Some people have mentioned that they’re not going to expose their children to the water again.”

As a result, the city is facing another outbreak: This time of Shigellosis, an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Shigella. The main way to prevent the infection is by washing one’s hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, malaise, abdominal pain and tenesmus — constantly feeling the need to evacuate one’s bowels, even with an empty colon.

It is, according to the CDC, “very contagious” and resistant to many “first-line drugs,” the most common antibiotics.

“It’s very easy to transmit person to person, or through food. If people aren’t washing their hands, it runs through the whole county,” Henry told CNN.

The disease is fairly common in America — about 500,000 cases appear in the country each year — but incidents in Genesee County, home to Flint, have more than tripled in the past calendar year, according to

Since October 2015, 84 cases of the disease have appeared in Flint, a city that normally experiences 20 instances each year, according to CNN.

In response, the Genesee County Health Department has issued three advisories since May 2016, warning of the disease and urging residents to wash their hands.

The water crisis that led to this outbreak began in April 2014, when the city of Flint began drawing water from the Flint River to save money. Previously, it had shared Detroit’s water supply.

This is how toxic Flint’s water really is

A short 18 months later, though, “researchers discovered that the proportion of children with above-average lead levels in their blood had doubled,” The Washington Post reported.

The city switched back to Detroit’s water supply, but it was too late — the water from the Flint River had proved corrosive to the lead pipes, and lead levels in water still remain unsafe. Residents have been forced to drink bottled or filter watered for more than a year now, as The Post noted.

As a result, residents are averse to using tap water for much of anything, even when their taps are outfitted with the proper filters.

Take 35-year-old mother of four Bobbie Nicks, who was interviewed by the Detroit Free Press in July while nervously watching her children swim in an above-ground pool. Her family uses bottled water to drink, cook and brush their teeth, even though they have filters installed in their home.

But she let her kids swim because she didn’t want to steal their childhood.

“We have to find a good balance of letting kids be kids and not dealing with what we have to deal with as parents — of being scared of the water,” Nicks told the paper.

Some parents, despite the warnings of health officials like Jim Henry, won’t let their children near water in any capacity, which Henry claimed is one of the catalyzing factors in the current Shigellosis outbreak.

Flint’s water crisis reveals government failures at every level

Henry told CNN that people of Flint, many of whom still must use filtered and bottled water due to damaged water pipes, use baby wipes — available free of charge at various sites around the city — instead.

Delano Whidbee, a Flint resident with two young daughters, is one such parent. His household has lead filters on the shower and faucets, making them safe to use, but he still refuses to bathe his girls in the water.

“With the kids, we use baby wipes,” he told CNN.

Henry said that’s a problem.

“Baby wipes are not effective, they’re not chlorinated, it doesn’t kill the bacteria and it doesn’t replace handwashing,” Henry said. “People have changed their behavior regarding personal hygiene. They’re scared.”

Speaking with, Suzanna Cupal, public health division director for the Genesee County Health Department, stressed the importance of properly washing hands — for at least 20 seconds using soap and water, taking care to clean under the fingernails — to prevent further outbreak.

It’s the latest issue arising from the water disaster, which led to six current and former Michigan state employees to be charged with criminal activity in association with the crisis. It has also led to cries for the resignation of Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has called the disaster his Hurricane Katrina. Most importantly, it has left a city of nearly 100,000 without safe tap water for more than a year.

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