Local Teens Help Solve Flint’s Water Crisis with New Lab and Water Testing: ‘It Gives Me Hope’

Flint Community Lab

During the summer of 2014, thousands of people in the close-knit, industrial city of Flint, Michigan — “Flintstoners,” as they proudly call themselves — saw their lives change in an instant.

In an effort to save money, the city switched its water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River. Residents immediately complained about the water’s smell and taste and reported worrying symptoms including hair loss, rashes, and seizures.

Tests ordered in August revealed E. coli was in Flint’s water, and parts of the city were ordered to boil the water before drinking it. Elected officials denied for over a year that the city’s water was also contaminated with lead, but they finally acknowledged that the water wasn’t safe in September 2015.

The crisis is still fresh in the minds of many residents who continue to experience long-term health effects and are wary of their water.

Now, a group of local high school and college students is hoping to restore trust in the water system among their neighbors through the new McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab, also known as the Flint Community Water Lab. For the next three years, they will work alongside chemists from the University of Michigan to test the water in more than 20,000 Flint homes and share the results.

RELATED: How Sick Are the Kids in Flint? Inside the Shocking Health Effects of the Devastating Water Crisis

The lab began as a pilot program in 2018 between the Flint Development Center and regional non-profit organization Freshwater Future and officially opened last month with the support of donors, including the University of Michigan, Thermo Fisher Scientific and The Nalgene Water Fund.

Markeysa Peterson, 17, tells PEOPLE she joined the lab to help people struggling in the wake of the crisis. Her nephew Curtis was diagnosed with autism due to lead contamination.

“We have to go through the everyday struggle of teaching him how to develop and function,” she says. “The crisis has made me a bit mentally distraught — everybody in Flint is struggling because we don’t have the attention or support that we deserve.”

In August, Michigan announced that it would pay $600 million to the victims of the Flint Water Crisis, but some residents say money doesn’t solve leftover issues from the crisis.

“Everything from the water plant to our tap needs to be completed replaced in order for us to feel safe,” says Carma Lewis, who has spent most of her life in Flint. “We’re sending our babies into these old school buildings where they still don’t have safe water and they’re using bottled water.”

For more on the Flint Community Water Lab, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE or subscribe here.

Flint Community Lab Flint Community Lab

Lewis points out that having local teens and leaders running the lab is especially important to her, and she plans on getting her water tested regularly.

“It gives me hope,” she says. “I have more faith in kids

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