What The Eyes Don’t See, Dr. Mona Attisha Did
The doctor-detective who revealed Flint’s water crisis coming to TC
By Clark Miller | Sept. 15, 2018
In 2015, Flint pediatrician and researcher Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha began noticing symptoms in her young patients that suggested lead poisoning. Health data from a local hospital confirmed her suspicions: Lead exposures had risen — doubled, in fact — since the introduction of a new source of city water in 2014. Alarmed, she quickly called a press conference. Within days, what became known as the Flint Water Crisis became national news. Faced with the evidence, the city declared a water emergency.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha will appear at the National Writers Series in Traverse City on Sunday, Sept. 30, to discuss her book, “What The Eyes Don’t See” (Random House), which describes not only the medical side of the story but also the bureaucratic stonewalling, political disenfranchisement, and (she argues) racism that made the problem worse.
A LONG-STANDING PROBLEM
Complaints about foul-smelling and nasty-tasting water had persisted since April 2014, when a state-appointed financial manager put in charge of Flint switched the city’s source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River.
The negative effects of that decision were soon clear. Only four months later, officials had to issue the first of several water-boiling advisories for parts of the city. Two months after that, General Motors stopped using Flint tap water at its Flint truck plant because it caused corrosion in engines. The water had the same effect on lead water pipes leading to roughly half the homes in Flint.
In retrospect, it seems nothing less than astounding that health officials continued to dismiss the health risks. However, there was no way to ignore the problem forever. Hanna-Attisha’s thrown-together press conference made that clear.
While many observers applauded Hanna-Attisha’s public airing of the crisis, she also faced an enormous backlash.
Critics asked, could the data be trusted? Was it ethical to cause such a panic? What about other cities with even higher lead levels? Those who supported the findings had simple answers to all three questions: Hanna-Attisha presented facts, not conjecture. (The hospital health data she used has since been corroborated in numerous studies.) By the federal government’s own definition, there was indeed an emergency: The Centers for Disease Control has said there is no “safe” level of lead exposure. And while activists can commiserate with cities with even higher lead exposures, they still have do something about their own community. In anticipation of her NWS event in Traverse City, Northern Express chatted with Dr. Hanna-Attisha about her book, her doubters, and the mea culpas that have come since.
Northern Express: You drew conclusions from hospital records. Even so, you were criticized for it. Later studies confirmed your findings. So what explains the harsh initial reaction?
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: The ‘disobedience’ in some folks’ eyes was that I didn’t go through a peer-review process before going public with the data. But the main reason for the attacks was that the evidence went against what the State of Michigan had said.
Northern Express: You later received numerous apologies, including one from state health and environmental officials. (Governor Snyder even appointed her to several commissions.) But do you think bureaucrats and politicians really learned anything from this?
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: I hope so. There are so many lessons from the crisis, and they’ve resonated throughout different levels, especially regarding water issues.
Northern Express: You paint a pretty bleak picture of those who were supposed to protect the public.
Dr. Hanna-Attishsa: But I don’t want people thinking that all bureaucrats at all levels weren’t doing their job. That wasn’t the case.
Northern Express: You’ve argued that racism played a role.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: That’s well documented. It’s a matter of environmental justice. Racism meant the problem went as long as it did. Flint had already been in crisis for decades. The city had a series of (state-appointed) emergency managers who usurped the power of local authorities. And in doing that, they took away power from the people of Flint. The goal at that point was to save money. Switching the water source was about avoiding the higher rates until a new pipeline could be built to the lakes.
Northern Express: You’ve said that the Flint crisis contains lessons for many other communities.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: I wanted to share in my book that kids everywhere are living in poverty and injustice, that we have crumbling schools, incarcerated parents. These are toxicities we need to deal with across America.
Northern Express: How are you and other activists attacking those problems in Flint?
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: We’re building hope based on science. There are things that kids need everywhere … child-care facilities, school nurses, nutrition courses, health monitoring.
Northern Express: Meanwhile, several science-based policies are under attack from the highest levels of government.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: I’m concerned about [the weakening of] EPA regulations protecting water and air quality. In fact, the state of science is another big theme of the book. Protections are being denied. We’ve known about climate change for decades, for example, but it’s being denied or downplayed in some quarters. And all of this is consistent with what happened in Flint.
Northern Express: There’s talk of a movie based on your book.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: That’s right. Even before the book was written, film rights were optioned. I don’t know much about it. I just know if it happens, it will take a long time.
Northern Express: What are you up to these days?
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: I’m working with others to put interventions in place. That’s happening through Flint Kids, which you can learn about at flintkids.org. (Flint Kidshas raised nearly $5.6 million in grants and more than $18 million from donations). We’re also writing grant proposals and advocating for change. And I’m principal investigator on a Centers for Disease Control-funded database called the Flint Registry. It will have about 150,000 people registered. It’s funded for a total of four years, but we’re working to get that extended. [The goal of the $14.4 million Flint Registry is to identify, track and help minimize the health effects of lead exposure.] And of course I continue to see patients.
Northern Express: Ever think of running for office?
Dr. Hanna-Attisha: No. I’m super busy. My commitment is to the kids in Flint. It’s an amazing privilege to touch more kids who can benefit. (A portion of the proceeds from the book will help supports those efforts.)
Who is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha?
She was named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People in 2016. She received the 2016 Ridenour Prize for Truth Telling, as well as the Rose Nader Award for Arab American activism by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and was named Michiganian of the Year by the Detroit News. She has given commencement addresses at Michigan State University , Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Virginia Tech, and the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources.
Join the Conversation with Dr. Hanna-Attisha
The Sunday, Sept. 30 event takes place begins at 7pm at City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6pm. For tickets, go to www.cityoperahouse.org, call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday-Friday, or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front Street.