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US President Barack Obama declares emergency in Flint, Michigan, over lead pollution in water supply

Flint, Michigan: The longest line at Freeman Elementary School's Family Fun Night was not for face painting or food. It was for lead testing.

For three months, families in the former car manufacturing centre of Flint have taken their children for blood tests and lived on bottled water after doctors found high levels of lead in the bodies of the community's youngest people.

Flint residents protest outside City Hall.
Flint residents protest outside City Hall. Photo: AP

"It really is a scary situation to know that we can't get clean drinking water," said Sherri Miller, who brought her first-grade son Jameer to have a finger-prick blood sample tested. "It really is scary to think someone knew about this and did nothing."

Nearly two years have passed since safe drinking water flowed from Flint taps.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, who was born in Flint,  attends a rally outside City Hall, accusing Michigan Governor Rick ...
Filmmaker Michael Moore, who was born in Flint, attends a rally outside City Hall, accusing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder of poisoning the city's water. Photo: AP

The financially troubled city began drawing its water from the Flint River in 2014 to save money.

Officials failed to treat the corrosive water properly to prevent metal leaching from old pipes.

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Worse, residents didn't learn they were drinking tainted water until the state issued warnings a year and a half after the switch was made.

At the weekend, US President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration that clears the way for federal aid for Flint.

The tap water in Flint, population 100,000, became contaminated after the city switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River while a pipeline to Lake Huron is under construction.

The corrosive water from the Flint River lacked adequate treatment and caused lead to leach from old pipes in homes and schools.

Flint returned to the Detroit system in October after elevated lead levels were discovered in children, and could tap into the new pipeline by the (northern) summer.

But officials remain concerned that old pipes could continue to leach lead, which can cause behaviour problems and learning disabilities in children as well as kidney ailments in adults.

The White House also said on Saturday the Federal Emergency Management Agency will co-ordinate all disaster relief efforts, providing water, filters, cartridges and other items for 90 days.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations late on Thursday, saying needs "far exceed the state's capability" and added that emergency measures could cost $US41 million.

Mr Snyder said on Saturday that Mr Obama had denied the disaster declaration request based on the legal requirement that such relief is intended for natural events, fires, floods or explosions.

For the city's residents, daily life is now all about lead.

Before the crisis, Flint, about an hour's drive north of Detroit, had become a symbol of the decline of the US car industry, having suffered waves of lay-offs and the loss of half its population. Forty-one per cent of the population falls below the poverty line.

These days, it's a place where parents fear for the health of young children.

"It has such damning, lifelong and generational consequences," said Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of paediatric residency at Hurley Children's Hospital, where more than 2000 children have been tested.

She is credited with bringing the problem to the public's attention after state agencies initially dismissed her concerns.

Governor Snyder finally acknowledged in late September that the water was unsafe, saying the consequences of switching to Flint River water were not "fully understood".

The decision to use the river was made while a Snyder-appointed emergency manager was running city government.

The city, which had been under state supervision since 2011 because of its financial problems, returned to local control last April.

Flint went back to Detroit water in October, but some fear the old pipes were so damaged that they must be replaced, at costs estimated as high as $2.19 billion.

On Monday, Mr Snyder apologised to Flint and pledged that officials would contact every household to ensure families have bottled water and a filter and to check whether they want to be tested for lead exposure.

He also promised to seek a long-term solution.

"This is a crisis," the governor said. "So we're responding appropriately. There's more work to be done."

Residents are angry.

"The state was telling everybody, 'It's fine, relax. ... It's safe,"' even as people complained that the water looked cloudy and tasted bad, said community activist Melissa Mays.

Mays, her husband and three sons ages 11, 12 and 17 are taking medication to reduce high lead and other heavy metal levels in their blood.

"Like everybody else, we drank and cooked with it because they told us it was safe," she said.

AP