Here is Part I of our interview with Whistleblower Insider’s 2016 Whistleblower of the Year winner — LeeAnne Walters. After seeing her own children poisoned by the lead in Flint’s water, Walters decided she had to take a stand. Since then, Ms. Walters has worked tirelessly to draw attention to the public-health crisis in Flint. Here is how Ms. Walters details first-hand her experience as a whistleblower, her advice others, and her visions for what comes next.
Whistleblower Insider: Tell us a little bit about what happened to your family, and how you got involved with the Flint water crisis.
LeeAnne Walters: Okay, so the water switch happened in April of 2014. We were very naïve to the fact that—we had our whole house filter, so we figured that the switch would not affect us. We figured we were safe, not realizing that the house filter that was installed was for sediment only and did not take out any kind of contaminants or anything that can cause a [health] problem. And so, as the summer progressed, my family started developing weird rashes, all of us, in all different places, different kinds. We weren’t quite sure of what was going on. We had gotten diagnosed with scabies multiple times, even though after the second time, I was questioning whether or not [the diagnosis] was correct.
And so, as we move forward, we get into the fall, and my hairdresser started noticing that I had lost—I had been using the same hairdresser for years—and she noticed that I had been losing a lot of hair and my hair was thinning out really badly. Then shortly after that, my eyelashes started to fall out.
And so at this point, we had no idea what was going on, the rashes weren’t going away. In November of 2014, my 14 year old son had gotten severely ill, was out of school for a month, in and out of the hospital. At one point they told us, they thought he had cancer because they couldn’t figure out what was going on.
Whistleblower Insider: When did you start to make the connection to the water?
LeeAnne Walters: December 2014. We had our first bout of brown water. And so when we contacted the city, we were told that they were winterizing the system. In January of 2015, we got a notice from the City, that we had been out of compliances for [the water contaminant] TTHM for the entire year and that if you’re immune compromised, you needed to contact your doctor. And I do have an immune compromised son, and so at that point, we did contact his doctor who said that we needed to go onto bottled water.
So we started having questions. Me and my husband started attending city council meetings, trying to figure out what was going on, and we noticed the theme in these city council meetings was very one-sided on information they wanted us to have and what they wanted us to know. And so I went home and started doing additional research because they just wouldn’t answer anything more than that.
Whistleblower Insider: What did you find in your own research?
LeeAnne Walters: I discovered that dermal absorption TTHM is very bad for you, and inhalation absorption is even worse than that, and nobody was addressing these things. And so I kept pushing these issues at the city council meetings. At one point I got told, “we don’t have to disclose that to you, it’s not part of regulations, we’re not at fault, if you have a problem, take it up with the EPA.” So I did.
As this is going on, the brown water starts becoming a constant thing in the house. It wasn’t just one random fluke [occurrence], it was becoming almost a daily occurrence. So at this point we’re baffled and wondering what is going on here.
Whistleblower Insider: How did the city respond?
LeeAnne Walters: On January 21st of 2015, me and my husband and our 18-year-old daughter went into a meeting that was requested by the citizens with the city of Flint. We wanted to speak with the EPA, DEQ, health officials—we wanted everybody there. But at the last minute, [the city] changed the venue to a spot where it held way less people, and where nobody had to be sworn in because it was not in city hall. There was a heavy police presence. We were not allowed to ask questions. We had to write them down on a piece of paper, and they were picking and choosing what questions to answer, what parts of questions that they would answer, and the answers were very vague.
In hindsight, looking back at it now, to me it feels as though it was set up to not give us any answers. It was set up to enrage people and upset them, and have it turn into a circus so that we wouldn’t get any answers. But up until this point, the City kept telling my family that what was happening at my home was specific to my home. And so when we went into that meeting that night, on top of all this other stuff going on, we’re looking around, and we’re seeing people hold up bags of hair, showing off their rashes, holding up jugs of discolored water. Me and my husband were like, “okay what the hell is going on here”.
At one point, I got into it with [Flint’s] emergency manager. I was showing him my water and I’m asking him what is he doing and what is going on. He publicly humiliated me by telling me that I was a liar and he didn’t believe that it was my water, and I was stupid to think anybody would take this seriously. And so at that point it’s kind of funny but it’s not. I mean, I find it funny now. There’s actually pictures the Associate Press took of me approaching him and like having this conversation and my daughter is in it.
And so at that point, we’re all very frustrated. It’s obvious that it’s not specific to our home. It’s not specific to us. There’s all this physical evidence and nobody is listening. How do we make them listen? How do we make them take us seriously? How do we make them care?
Whistleblower Insider: So how did you make them listen?
LeeAnne Walters: We all started brainstorming on it, and we decided that we need to get to the science of it because you can’t argue with science. So at that point, I then put on the hat of stay-at-home mom to water activist. I started researching and teaching myself about all things water, different water infrastructures, different chemicals they used in water, federal regulations for water. A lot of long hours, a lot of long, sleepless nights of what the missing part of this was because it just didn’t add up.
Whistleblower Insider: As this is all going on, what’s the impact on your family?
LeeAnne Walters: In February, I go in to take my twins to see their pediatrician. I kept asking about their height and weight. We watch Gavin more closely because he has a compromised immune system, so we keep a more cautious view on him. And we noticed he was starting to lose some weight and we’re like okay, what’s going on here. At almost four years old, my twins were 32 and 37 pounds, and all the doctors kept telling us, oh twins are generally smaller than most kids, that this is normal. And I’m like yeah, but not my twins.
It didn’t sit right with me, so I start questioning him. I’d taken a video of what was happening to Gavin specifically because he had the worst reaction to the water out of everybody. I took a video of what his skin looked like before his bath and what it looked like after his bath. And you can see all these big, red blotches. You can see it was so enflamed and painful for him to take a bath. When we would put lotion on him, he would carry on and cry and scream ungodly and hysterically because it hurt so bad.
So at that point, his pediatrician wrote us a note telling us that he was having some kind of reaction to the water. I took that note immediately down to the City of Flint, so I became priority number one for them. Before it was like yeah, yeah, get on the list. They came in, they start testing, and they start seeing that the water was consistently brown in our home.
Later, I went back to the pediatrician, I had spoke to a couple different experts in the field, and they had given me a list of blood tests to request for my children. The doctor even refused to do our yearly immunity profile that we do on Gavin. He wouldn’t do anything which didn’t make sense to me. I was told that I had an agenda. He walked in with papers from the City and told me that he had talked to the City—without my permission—and that the City was saying something different and that obviously I was after something. He refused to treat my kids for anything water-related. He told me he could get in really big trouble for saying it was water-related and that he would not do anything more with regards to my kids.
Whistleblower Insider: When did you first confirm that the water was causing these problems?
LeeAnne Walters: Two weeks later. The City is testing in my home. I get a frantic voicemail from the water department telling me not to mix my kids’ juices with it, not to let my kids drink it, don’t drink it at all. They never left a number for what the lead level actually was.
So the next day, I’m calling them, freaking out, like okay what’s going on here, and my first test was 104 parts per billion. I didn’t understand what that meant. Then, when he said the EPA standard is no more than 15, that just blew me away.
I immediately called the pediatrician’s office telling them I got the tests back from the City, I need my kids processed today for blood. The receptionist told me, per the doctor, that they had to wait to hear from the City of Flint before they would allow my children to be tested. And so I physically went down and got the report. I got to the pediatrician’s office and said you have two choices: you can either send for the test or you’re going to put it in writing why you’re waiting for the City to give you permission to do this and I’m not leaving without one or the other. So me and my 14-year-old son sat there for an hour and a half. The City actually emailed my doctor and copied me on it, and five minutes later I had the paperwork to get their tests done.
Now once their tests were performed, I was told that they were fine, that they would not give me the paperwork, neither the doctor nor the test labs, and they would not give me the actual number. It took us four and a half months to get that information. And I didn’t buy it because they were being so secretive.
We decided to take Gavin to a doctor, a dermatologist outside of the City. At this point we’re not trusting anybody. I put together, at this point, I figured out that my son’s pediatrician’s wife was [Flint’s] Emergency Manager’s Assistant at this time. I got a phone call from the dermatologist a week after Gavin’s test, telling me that my son had lead poisoning and severe anemia from the lead poisoning.
At this point I’m freaking out. So now my focus has shifted, not only am I looking at water infrastructure, but I’m also looking at lead and water, lead and children, when children are poisoned by lead in water, that kind of stuff, and only one name had come up which was Mark Edwards. He was the only person online that I could find.
Whistleblower Insider: When did you reach out the EPA?
So as this is happening, I’m talking with Miguel Del Toral from the EPA. And I’m talking with him about all this stuff that’s going on. I did not trust him at first because I’ve been through too much, and he was basically asking me questions that everybody did that did absolutely nothing for us. And so I’ll be honest, I was kind of mean to him the first couple of conversations(laughter). He had to earn my trust, which he did, completely. I actually started using him as a mentor as I was trying to figure out what’s going on.
And so as I’m talking with Miguel, and I explain to him what’s going on with Gavin, I’m like, look, I found this professor to see if he could help. I don’t know if he will, but that’s when Miguel informed me, because he had done some testing on my home, that Mark Edwards was the one actually doing the independent testing for the EPA. When the EPA does testing, they do their own testing, and then they send it out to a third party to correlate their findings. Mark Edwards happened to be who they were using for Flint.
And so I had no idea about any of it, so after I brought it up to Miguel, I was like oh, okay. At that point I contacted Mark, and me and Mark have been working together ever since.
Whistleblower Insider: And what did you and Mark ultimately find?
As this is going on, as I’m doing my research, I’m noticing that I can’t find a corrosion control in Flint’s water system. I had called Miguel one day to ask him if polymer aids could act as an anti-corrosion control because I wasn’t sure exactly what their role was.
At that point, he was like, “Well, what are you reading?” And he asked me to read him the chemicals Flint was using, so I did. And we played that game three times on the phone, with him making me read him everything verbatim, and he’s like, okay flip the page. I told him there were only numbers on the next page, and the rest of the report was just numbers. And he said, “You’ve got to send that to me.” So I sent it to him, and he calls me a little while later and was like, “Oh my god, they are not using any corrosion controls.” He told me polymer aids don’t work for that, and that’s what I thought. That’s why I had these questions.
I didn’t realize the magnitude of what I had stumbled upon in my findings at that time because I was still very new to all this. I do, however, know what it means now. And so that’s how it started and how we got involved in this and why we got to where we are today.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II.
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