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Flint artist makes installation out of water bottles to highlight water safety issues

Desiree Duell

A Flint artist is creating installations around the city made out of the empty water bottles she and other residents have been drinking.

Desiree Duell says so far she’s collected some 1,500 water bottles from residents who still don’t trust Flint’s tap water.

“We’ve had businesses and individual families come and drop off their water bottles, and I keep getting more! And we want to show that it’s kind of a waste, that we can’t drink our own tap water,” says Duell.

She says she’s spending about $40 to $50 a month on bottled water for her, her son and their two cats.

That’s on top of paying a $100 water bill.

“The concern for myself and other families that are strapped financially, is that that’s really a lot of money to take on, on top of the other expenses you incur as a family,” she says.

Credit Desiree Duell

Duell is one of a number of Flint residents who are still wary of the city’s tap water, even though officials have released tests showing the public water system now meets drinking water standards.

Last summer the city had to issue boil water advisories when fecal coliform bacteria turned up in tests.

But in trying to solve that problem, city officials created another: too much disinfectant byproduct.

According to the EPA, the byproduct, called TTHM (Total Trihalomethanes), can cause health problems for some people, including an increased risk of cancer, if they drink a lot of it over many years.

Current tests show the levels of TTHM in Flint’s water are now back to safe levels.

“While we continue to work on improving aesthetic qualities, such as discoloration or odor, you can be confident that the water provided to you today meets all safety standards. Maintaining safety and quality in our water is a top priority of the city,” officials said in water quality report released in March.

For Duell, the switch to bottled water made her feel better physically.

Credit Desiree Duell

“I didn’t know why I wasn’t feeling good, and like my pants were sort of like having this residue on them [when I tried to wash them.] There had been boil advisories on the TV, but I don’t have cable so I didn’t know, so it wasn’t until a friend told me much later that they were over-chlorinating the water in everybody’s tap water,” Duell says.

As they went through more and more water bottles, she says her son asked if they were going to use them to make an art project.

“I’m formally trained as an artist and that’s what I do, and my son and I started accumulating these water bottles and we were sort of interested in what we could make with them. So we did a test piece, and the idea is that we’re creating a body of water, and that references rivers – you know, bodies of water – but also that our bodies are made of water.”

Duell traces the silhouette of a child and then fills it in with water bottles, which are then lit with LED lights.

“I did a lot of research about how to make the piece completely recyclable, and the safest way to do it was with LED lights. And I talked with friends of mine and people doing activism on this issue, and it sort of grew. I thought I was going to do it in my backyard with my son and it grew into this larger piece. We’re doing it in 3 sites around the city, just to show that this is an issue that affects us all.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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