“Flint is what happens when we dismiss science. Flint is what happens when we dismiss people. Flint is what happens when saving money is more important than public health.”
When images of brownish-yellow lead contaminated water coupled with photos of residents whose bodies were covered in blistering rashes surfaced on internet news sites in 2014, people wanted to know what exactly was happening in one of the poorest communities in America — Flint, Michigan. It was lead poisoning. But it was not until Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and public health advocate at the Hurley Medical Center, researched and revealed in September 2015 the inhumane and dangerous conditions people were living in there, that the world learned about Flint’s water crisis.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha, is the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, both scientists, who fled Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime for England in the 1970s. Mona was born in England in 1976 and shortly after that her parents moved to the U.S. After arriving in Flint, her mother taught English to other immigrants and her dad, a metallurgical engineer, worked for General Motors. Soon enough their American dream became a reality.
Flint, located approximately 70 miles north of Detroit, has a population of 100,000 residents, 57% of whom are African-American and 37% white. This city was once the most prosperous middle class community in the U.S. With the collapse of the auto industry and the auto makers unions, Flint’s prosperity evaporated. Now 42% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line.
Still, after decades of economic disinvestment, public health issues and crippling poverty, no one expected Flint’s citizens to be poisoned.
In April 2014, the City of Flint decided to save money by switching its water supply from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, for which Flint paid Detroit a fee, to the highly polluted Flint River. Flint saved even more money at their own water processing plant by not adding chemicals to the purifying process that would prevent lead from leaching from the city pipes into the water.
Miguel Del Toral of the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged there were unsafe levels of lead in the water system, but nothing was done. A friend who worked for the EPA told Dr. Hanna-Attisha that a scientist from Virginia Tech, Marc Edwards, had found high levels of lead in Flint residents’ tap water. Lead is a neurotoxin that impacts brain development, how people think and behave. It’s effects are especially damaging and incurable for children whose brains are still in formation. Dr. Hanna-Attisha began her own investigation and discovered that the lead levels in children’s blood were 50% higher in 2015 than they had been before the 2014 switch in water sources. By the time she identified the problem, over 8,000 children had been irreparably poisoned.
On September 24, 2015 she released a study that revealed that children had high levels of lead in their blood and it was caused by the Flint city council’s decision to save money by using the Flint River as the municipal water source, rather than the well treated water provided by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. As more children were being poisoned each day, Dr. Hanna-Attisha knew she needed to act urgently and ignored the long scientific process of have peer-reviewed studies done. She held a press conference and testified twice in court against the state of Michigan, which tried to discredit her and her team’s allegations and research. And she was ridiculed her personally.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s science, though, was irrefutable. Later, at the press conference in which the State of Michigan acknowledged the lead in water, Department of Environmental Quality officials apologized to Dr. Hanna-Attisha. In his 19 January 2016 State of the State address, Governor Rick Snyder publicly thanked Dr. Hanna-Attisha and Marc Edwards for sounding the alarm about the Flint Water Crisis.
While Dr. Hanna-Attisha admitted that there were moments when she was scared, there was no doubt that she was right. During a TEDMED talk, Dr. Hanna-Attisha said, “As physicians we have taken an oath to stand up as the healers and the protectors. We were fighting for the future that lives and grows inside our children and this was not a fight we could lose. Not on my watch.”
In 2016, Hanna-Attisha launched the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. Then she released her narrative: What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City (2018).
There is no safe level of lead for human consumption. To this day, Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her team are working diligently for the children and families of Flint and in other cities like Baltimore and Chicago where people living in poverty are exposed to lead. Although there is no way to flush led from the body once it’s there, the effects can be mediated by a healthy, high calcium diet. Dr. Hanna-Attsha has been a leader in the campaign to educate people about the importance of good nutrition, and to make nutritious food available to poor people. “The most potent medication that we can prescribe is to lift our families out of poverty,” she says.
For her role in exposing the Flint Water Crisis and her public health advocacy in response to the crisis, Time Magazine named Dr. Hanna-Attisha one of the Most Influential People in 2016. She was also included in the Politico 50. She was the recipient of the 2016 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling and the PEN American Center James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Award and as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans of 2016. Hanna-Attisha was also named Michiganian of the Year by the Detroit News.
She was awarded the Rose Nader Award for Arab American activism by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and named the Champion of Justice by ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services). In 2016 Hanna-Attisha was the commencement speaker at Michigan State University, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and Virginia Tech among other universities.
Hanna-Attisha has also been recognized by environmental organizations, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Ecology Center and Children’s Environmental Health Network. She was named a Union of Concerned Scientists 2016 Got Science? Champion.
On 30 March 2017, Hanna-Attisha was named an honorary co-chair of the March for Science.
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