Flint mom Melissa Lightfoot says her youngest child, Payton, is one of the top students in her kindergarten class, but she is "so scared that could all change next year."
That's because the 5-year-old — along with her two older siblings — was found to have high lead levels in her blood after the Michigan city switched to a more corrosive water source in 2015.
The little girl described by her mom as the "diva of the family" has since been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, just like 8-year-old sister Kamryn and 13-year-old brother Tra'Vaughn.
"This is real," Lightfoot, 33, told NBC News on Sunday. "This right here is scary."
Lightfoot's family is one of seven who filed a class action lawsuit on Monday, seeking to hold a raft of city and state officials responsible for the lead-poisoning crisis that has made Flint into a symbol of government failure and environmental disaster.
The federal suit, filed under the Safe Water and Lead-Free Water Acts, is the latest in a tide of litigation spawned by the crisis.
Lawyers will ask the courts to certify a class action that would cover any Flint kids who were poisoned when water from the Flint River corroded aging pipes and leached lead into the system.
Lightfoot said that before the city changed water sources, her children were tested for lead and were not found to be in danger. But by late 2014, their levels were above 5 micrograms per deciliter, which shows an alarming level of exposure.
Doctors initially assumed it was from paint, but Lightfoot lives in Section 8 housing that was certified lead-free, she said. After several retests, she said, her pediatrician told her, "It could be the water."
"I was scared," Lightfoot said. "My kids are getting poisoned from something that's a necessity and as a parent there’s nothing I can do to help them. It’s already in them, I can't take it out, and there’s no medicine for it."
Lightfoot — who now uses bottled water even for bathing — said she has seen her children's behavior deteriorate since their elevated lead levels were discovered; their attention drifts and they're prone to fits of anger. The girls suffered hair loss, and Kamryn developed rashes.
"I’m constantly at a doctor’s office," she said. "If it’s not a doctor's office, it's an appointment for therapy, because of this lead being in my kids."
Of the three children, Payton had the highest level, close to 8 micrograms per deciliter. But lawyers said one of the other plaintiffs in the suit tested as high as 30.
"Lead poisoning is an insidious disease," said one of the attorneys, Hunter Shkolnik. "We know the brain is permanently and irreversibly damaged but it doesn't manifest itself immediately. These children have been pushed so far down now they cannot ever achieve what was expected of them.
"What we're trying to do here is get action and get action quick," he added. "There are many more children in the community who need attention. It cannot wait any longer."
Another lawyer, Adam Slater, said the suit will attempt to "hold accountable" those responsible for changing Flint's water source, failing to take steps to control corrosion, reassuring the public the water was safe to drink, and failing to heed early warnings that it was not.
The Flint city attorney and Michigan state attorney general declined to comment on pending litigation. To proceed, the plaintiffs will have to show why the city and state are not covered by governmental immunity.
The class action also names engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews and Newman, which was hired by Flint before the switch. The company said in a statement that its work was of "limited scope" and that the decision not to use corrosion control was made by the government and not its engineers.
Although the city has changed back to its old water supply and is taking steps to control the lead, Lightfoot said her trust has been permanently broken, and her peace of mind shattered by uncertainty.
"I don’t know how the rest of my kids' lives are going to play out because of how high their lead levels are," she said.
"Now I just want to get my kids out of Flint."