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Flint residents fight water's effects on hair, skin

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Flint — In a hidden salon that sits off the side of road on the city’s west side, hair stylist Nina Arthur has taken special precautions to protect her clients from lead exposure.

Arthur, owner of Nina’s Hair Care on Flushing, has been using charcoal shampoo on her clients’ hair for more than 17 years, but it has become increasingly important for her to use it now amid the city’s lead-tainted water crisis.

“Sometimes, people will neglect their hair and skin, too, but those are usually the first places where signs will show up if you are sick,” said Arthur, 47. “It’s very important take care of your hair and to also pay close attention to different changes that you may notice.”

With bottles of water being delivered by the truckload each day to Flint residents, some insist that bottled drinking water is not enough as hygiene upkeep becomes challenging each day — from going out to a salon to showering.

“It’s a precaution that I always take because charcoal shampoo draws any toxins out of the hair without doing any damage or drying it out,” said Arthur, whose salon has not experienced elevated lead in its water.

“You can also use charcoal soap on hair extensions and skin that has been exposed to lead. It’s very gentle and can be used on children too.”

Also in upcoming weeks, Pure Bliss Salon & Spa will partner with Hair Studio 57 and Transitions School of Cosmetology to provide a free three-month hair treatment with hair care products for anyone with lead exposure.

Randy and Melissa Withey, the husband and wife team who own Pure Bliss Salon, say continuous use of lead-tainted water can be detrimental to hair.

“The treatment will remove all impurities from the hair and protect it from future damage,” said Melissa Withey, who has been a hairstylist for more than 20 years.

Residents have had to deal with undrinkable tap water from corroded lead pipes, and many rely on bottled water for bathing and showering to protect themselves.

Standing at 6-foot-2, James Adams, 43, said he is having a hard time not being able to shower.

“I’m a very clean person. Do you know how hard it is to try and take a ‘bird bath’ every day with bottled water?” Adams said. “It’s very cumbersome, but if you want to be clean, you will do it.”

State health officials, meanwhile, have repeated a recommendation that even young children can bathe in the city’s water, despite an increase in rashes. An advisory from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has said there is “no scientific link” between Flint water and skin rashes that began appearing after the city switched from the Detroit system’s Lake Huron water to Flint River water in April 2014.

But Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, has said there has been an increase in rashes reported to the city’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline. And Hurley Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told The News she too has observed an increase in skin rash cases.

While claims of hair loss and dry skin patches have been reported, Dr. Walter Barkey, a dermatologist in the Flint area, said some of Flint’s struggling residents may not be seeking treatment.

“I have seen the regular cases of eczema, but what you have to realize is people that live in low-income areas will not see a dermatologist on a regular bases, so it’s hard to tell,” Barkey said. “During the colder months, skin can become dry, and sometimes the additives in the water can irritate the skin too.”

In some areas, if people are still not able to use tap water, Barkey suggests that relying solely on baby wipes to cleanse can pose a problem.

“As most bacteria increases wherever a fold is on the body, many people will use baby or wet wipes to wash vital areas like the groin and their armpits,” Barkey said. “I wouldn’t suggest using them to cleanse those areas as they can lead to an allergic reaction and horrible rashes for some.”

Sharon Robertson, who wears hair extensions, finds it challenging to wash her hair and shower.

“When I was using the water in my home, I started getting bald spots and dry, itchy patches on my skin. The hair loss was so significant that I started wearing hair extensions. Now, I have to use even more water to keep my body and hair clean,” Robertson said. “I know the mayor said the water is safe now, but I don’t trust it. We need new infrastructure and it needs to be done fast.”

While it’s possible to go without showering for long periods of time, Barkey does not recommend it.

“In severe cases, I have seen a buildup of dead skin cells causing bacteria growth,” he said. “It can be worse for individuals in assisted living. The best method right now is to get a gallon of water and sponge down with soap and a clean cloth.”

As Arthur stands in the corner booth styling her client’s hair, she feels grateful that she can help in a small way.

“If I’m able to help take care of someone’s hair after lead exposure and help get it back healthy, then I’m happy,” she said. “Sometimes, something as simple as making someone look good can restore someone’s hope.”

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