This mother of four became an activist when she realized that the drinking water in her city, Flint, Michigan, was contaminated with lead, a very dangerous neurotoxic for children's brain development. He did not hesitate to team up with scientist Mark Edwards to gather evidence, report the situation and create home water analysis tests.
Anyone who has been to America knows that water is drunk from the tap (tap water). But inFlint, a population ofMichigan state, the water became a problem. After almost half a century consuming water from thelake huron, in the neighborDetroit, the crisis caused Flint to use its river water again in 2014 to reduce costs.
Heflint riverIt had been the backyard of local industries since the 1830s. Due to pollution, tap water turned brown and thousands of residents accumulated levels ofblood leadthat compromised their health.
Lead is aneurotoxicespecially dangerous for developing-age children, and LeeAnne Walters had four children. His twins developed a skin rash, another of his daughters began to lose locks of hair and at the end of that year, the eldest, fourteen, also fell ill. She ran out of eyelashes.
That mother knew that the problem was in the water. To prove it, he allied withMark Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech University, and finally, in January 2016, the State of Michigan declared a state of emergency. For weeks, the city council distributed bottled water to the population, who even had to shower with it. In April of last year, all the water supply points closed, but the problem is not solved.
Now, Walters and Edwards have pioneered a citizen science model in the United States to help others test the water in their homes through home tests. In 2018, she received the Goldman Award for her leading role in the Flint water crisis.
LeeAnee Walters was recently in Barcelona to share her experience at the City and Science Biennial, invited by the City Council's Institute of Culture.
Have you ever imagined that you would become a citizen scientist and an activist?
Never. I don't know if I would have chosen such a life, but now that I'm into this I don't think I'm going to give it up. It has gone like this, these things happen and now I will always be involved. I love learning new things, doing research… I think being an activist was my calling, but it took me a lifetime to find it. There are many things to do and learn in this job.
In Barcelona you have been introduced as a "mother, scientific citizen and activist". Are you comfortable with this definition?
There are other activists who have told me that I am a bad activist because I am too scientific and I don't mind telling another activist that they are doing the wrong thing, like using science in the wrong way. I have no problem getting their attention, and if this makes me a bad activist, I don't care. I am telling the truth and I am not going to change my morals for anyone. All I want is for people to have access to drinking water, it is a human right.
You are an example to many people now, but have you ever felt like David versus Goliath?
Yes, I have felt this way for a long time. There have even been times when I have felt alone, but they have been very few. I belong to a community where we support each other a lot and I have never felt helpless. It cost us blood, sweat, and tears to prove that the entire city was poisoning itself. But when the federal government agreed with us, we won.
How did you meet Mark Edwards, the environmental engineer who has accompanied you in your struggle?
After one of my sons was diagnosed, I started searching the internet to learn more about the health problems associated with drinking lead-contaminated water. Mark Edwards was the only person I came across in an article about their 2004 work in Washington DC, where they had also had water problems. I notified the Environmental Protection Agency that I had found a teacher I wanted to locate. They replied that they had already collected samples of the water from our houses, but I wanted an independent person to verify it. So I told them: "You are going to talk to him and we will see what happens here." Since then, Mark and I have worked together.
Your story is a paradigmatic example of citizen science, but I suppose not all scientists would lend themselves to it.
I ran into a couple of those scientists who talk to you like they're better than you. Mark is not one of those and is what I adore the most about him. Since I've known him, he has never behaved like this. I think it's very important to show the world that as a scientist you can work in a community and do something useful. In the future it will be increasingly necessary to address environmental issues.
Mark must be like your angel.
Yes it is. Flint would not have had the recognition, support and voice that we got if it had not been for Mark Edwards and his team, who helped us throughout.
Flint is not the only American population that has struggled with water.
We know that something similar also happened in Washington DC, in New Orleans and in many other places for at least 25 years. Flint's case is not the first. We get all kinds of requests from people who want to test their water for lead contamination. The government deceived us. People need to act to protect their environment and their families. We have jointly promoted a research study on water in the United States with Edwards.
Can you drink tap water at home?
No. Now we have problems with chlorine levels. It is no longer a question of lead, but of bacteria. I only drink bottled water and I don't think I will ever use tap water again. I trust science, but after learning that I gave my children poisoned water, we only drink bottled water. I am very afraid to drink tap water, it does not matter if I am in Flint or elsewhere. When I arrived in Barcelona I went to the supermarket to buy a box of bottles of water, I always carry some with me. Anywhere.
How are your children?
My children have serious health problems that we try to overcome every day, new symptoms always appear, some more serious than others. But I don't like talking too much about it publicly because I don't want to raise them as victims, but as survivors. We always try to look on the bright side. I've seen a lot of people in Flint fall into the victim mentality, it's easy to happen to you. I want my children to do things despite all this, I don't want them to think that they can't do them because of this.