Water Is Life: From Suburban LA to Flint to Standing Rock

Today, I have to tell the story, the one that I myself have scarcely told, because it’s been too painful to look at, to admit that my body, too, has been irreversibly impacted by years of water-as-disposable-resource, not water-as-life.

When I was young, I was the smallest kid in my class. The last to line up for the annual class photo, the recipient of many teasing words, some innocuous like “Marina Smurfling,” some deeply painful. When people first met me, they almost always guessed I was 2–3 years younger than I actually was, something that my headstrong, defiant young self detested. When the other girls in my class started to develop curves, my body remained small and straight. I felt alone, different, defective.

When I was 12, my concerned parents took me to see a doctor, who ran test after test to figure out what was wrong, and discovered that I had Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune thyroid disorder that causes stunted growth in children. I started taking a little pill full of synthetic hormones every day, and eventually started to grow. I took this pill this morning, and will do so for the rest of my life. It regulates my metabolism, and helps keep me alive.

Incidentally, we had two dogs in my youth who also developed hypothyroidism. Eventually, all three of us were taking medication daily. We wrote it off as “coincidence” at the time, unable to imagine there was any real correlation.

Years later, my parents read an article in the local newspaper about something being found in our hometown’s groundwater called “perchlorate.” Bermite Powder Company, a major employer in our suburban Los Angeles town, had produced bombs and other explosives for the U.S. miitary, and perchlorate was a major ingredient. Bermite Powder Company was found to have dumped its perchlorate-filled waste in local canyons, or else buried it underground with no protective barriers. From here, it trickled its way into our groundwater and, eventually, our bath tubs and faucets. Perchlorate, as it turns out, inhibits iodine uptake to the thyroid gland, causing hypothyroidism.

Imagine that.

Today, I am in Flint, Michigan, on a two-week visit to a “bootcamp” for scoliosis (another lucky ailment for another post) before I move to Florida. You’ve probably heard of Flint, if not from Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary about the impact of General Motors’ closures in the area, then from the headlines last year about the mass lead poisoning of its people.

Several years ago, Flint was so deep in financial debt (in no small part due to the loss of the auto manufacturing industry) that the governor appointed an Emergency Manager. In 2014, this manager, Ed Kurtz, decided to save Flint a little money by changing its water source to the local Flint River. The only problem? The water was so toxic that it corroded the city’s pipes, spilling lead into the people’s water supply.

Ignoring the complaints of the city’s majority African-American residents about the brown water coming out of their tap, officials allowed the lead-filled water kept flowing, and flowing, until late last year they finally relented and changed the water supply back to its original source.

But it was too late.

In those 18 months, about 10,000 children were exposed to toxic lead levels. Adults and children alike complained of memory loss, fatigue, hair loss, anemia, and more easily broken bones. The worst is yet to be seen, as the effects of lead poisoning in children can take years to show up, and include low IQ, behavioral challenges, a higher proclivity for violence, and increased likelihood of incarceration (just what Black folks need in our country.)

Even with the change in water supply, the pipes’ corrosion endures, and residents have been drinking out of plastic bottles — and many of them bathing in it — for over two years whilst the city begins the slow and arduous process of replacing the lead service pipes.

Below is a short video I took of the Flint River where it passes through the heart of downtown Flint. The bright yellow hue struck me. Ask yourself: would you want to drink out of that?

This story is not new.

Today, the native folks at Standing Rock continue a centuries-old struggle to protect their land. This time, it’s the oil-filled “Black Snake” that would cross under their water supply, threatening it with contamination.

But as the old endures, the new unfolds. Tribes from across the country and their allies are coming together in an unprecedented movement, water protectors braving sub-freezing temperatures, police violence, and the impending threat of evacuation in order to protect that which all of us need to live.

Here in Flint, my morning’s synthetic hormones in my blood, I know all too well that mistakes happen. Contaminants seep. Water lines corrode. Pipes break. The precautionary principle is still worth attending to.

This time, however, it’s for all of us.

The earth we all walk upon, the air we all breathe, the water we all drink. Recognizing water as life, not a mere disposable resource — life in the water protectors as much as life in the police. Life in you and me. Life in all of our blood, running the same color. All of it — and us — capable of being poisoned. All of it — and us — capable of being protected.

I wish the folks at Bermite Powder company had known the impact of their carelessness on a 12 year-old’s young body. I wish the state and city managers at Flint had listened to the thousands of fervent calls for help. This time, it’s not too late. We still have a choice. We can still take a stand.

Water is life.

Yes to the sanctity of our waters.

No to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Let’s make those calls until love wins, and the pipeline is stopped. Call Obama at 202–456–1414. Ask to leave a comment. It’s worth the damn 10 minutes on hold.