FLINT, Michigan — An “arsenal” of cases of fresh water stacked in the basement and a graveyard of scattered empty bottles are daily reminders that life in Flint, Michigan, is anything but normal.
For Gina Luster, 41, seeing the stacks of bottles angers her. She says she feels like less than a good parent after watching her daughter, 7, and niece, 13, suffer from hair loss and skin rashes.
“It makes me feel like the lowest of the low. My self-esteem when it first began was so, so bad,” Luster said on the verge of tears in her dining room.
“You pull up to a place where you need this water, and the line is a mile long and you’re waiting in your car, praying you don’t run out of gas waiting, and you’ve got your kids in the car and they’re looking at you like ‘What are you going to do about this?'” she said.
151 bottles of water in a day
CNN tallied the number of bottles the Luster family uses in a day and sorted how each bottle was used into eight categories. 36 bottles were used for cooking and another 36 were for washing hair. They used 27 bottles for drinking, plus 24 for doing dishes, and the rest were used for washing faces, brushing teeth and more.
The grand total came to 151 bottles — that’s how much the family of three uses in a day.
The average American uses 100 gallons of water a day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That translates to roughly 757 bottles of water, which is way more the 50 water bottles each person in the Luster household is using.
The EPA statistics include water used to flush toilets, wash hands, shower and it even accounts for leaks.
The family still uses the tap water for washing their hands — they get tired of having to unscrew a bottle for just about everything. Once or twice a week, they head to Gina’s mother’s house in nearby Swartz Creek, a suburb of Flint, to shower and do their laundry.
‘The taste was like metal’
The family didn’t know what was going on until each one started exhibiting health problems in summer 2014 — the city of Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in spring 2014.
“By July I had shriveled down and lost 60 pounds. I was down to a size 4,” said Luster, who used to weigh 200 pounds.
Luster, a self-admitted ice chewer, started noticing the taste of the water was different that summer. It tasted like metal or medicine.
Things grew worse when Luster collapsed at her job that month. She had been a store manager at a retailer Citi Trends until she was forced to go on medical leave in August 2014.
That fall, Luster’s medical records indicate doctors found cysts on her ovaries. She had a partial hysterectomy to remove the cysts, but the cause of the cysts was not cited.
Unable to return to work, Luster lost her job. She had previously been making $38,000 a year, but now she was relying on odd part-time jobs and the graciousness of her family to make things work.
Meanwhile, alarm bells were going off in Luster’s head when she started getting calls from school about her daughter, Kennedy.
“You’re getting calls from the teacher, ‘Kennedy was at school today scratching with both hands and she’s bleeding.’ What? I mean, she scratched until she was raw,” Luster said, exasperated.
Kennedy, a bright-eyed, spunky student, was also losing chunks of her hair, her mother said. Luster’s well-spoken teenage niece, Eeshyia, who lives with the family, was experiencing breakouts and rashes that drove her to an intense face-washing ritual.
They had been drinking the water for a year
Fifteen months after the family started seeing adverse changes in their health, they switched to using bottled water in October 2015.
“For a whole year’s span, we were drinking that water. That’s finally when they came out and said there was lead in the water,” Luster said, wide-eyed with a smile of disbelief.
Luster didn’t know just how much water they needed until she realized she was going through almost an entire 24-pack of water per day. By night, they’d only have four or five bottles left.
After dropping the girls off at school, Luster drove to a water station to pick up a new pack of water. Local fire stations set up “water stations” to distribute water to the families in Flint.
She picked up a case of water each day, seven days a week, for four months, she said.
With the rashes and hair loss persisting, Luster started using bottled water for more than just drinking. They started washing their hair and faces, brushing teeth and cooking with the precious, fresh water.
“It just became like second nature to come in and start unscrewing caps and doing whatever you had to do,” she said.
To keep up with the family’s increasing demand, she started driving to more water stations, acquiring a pack of water from each place. The family would pull off the side of the road, throw the water in the trunk, and go to the next place to get more water, sometimes up to 4 or 5 cases in one excursion.
Friends from around the country rallied to send her money so she could purchase a more water and save on gas money. Luster said she feels blessed when she sees the donated pallet of water sitting in her basement, flanked by more packs of water ascending the stairs.
A family comes together to survive
Since losing her job and taking on whatever random work she can, like cleaning a dialysis center at night, Luster is grateful for the help of her family.
“I’ve tapped out my savings and I’m literally living off my parents,” she said.
Her sister, Corey Luster, chimed in from the kitchen.
“It has forced us to be really reliant on each other for our survival, both economic and the water, period,” said the 33-year-old.
Beyond the her thinning and breaking hair, weight loss, rashes and more, Luster is worried about more than just the physical problems she and her girls are having.
“People are forgetting the emotional and mental problems that we’re going through now,” said Luster.
“I’m never going to forget this. My 7-year-old is never going to forget this. My 13-year-old niece is never going to forget this.”