Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the “Erin Brockovich” of the Flint, MI water crisis

Many of us have been following the story of government negligence that has culminated in the destruction of the water system and lead poisoning of thousands of children in the 100,000-strong city of Flint, Michigan. It’s a sad tale of criminal neglect of an economically stunted, primarily African American community by the very leaders elected to protect and serve their most basic and vital needs. In the midst of this mad-made disaster, to which no permanent solution has yet been proposed, is a brighter tale – that of pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Dr. Mona, as she’s called by her patients, spent hundreds of hours analyzing the lead levels of Flint’s children and presented incontrovertible data to state authorities showing that the water they had long deemed safe to drink was causing irreparable harm to the residents, and especially children, of Flint. Dr. Mona’s courage, tenacity, and persistence in the face of officials who publicly denounced her work and threatened her professional reputation is a shining example of one person speaking up and saving her community from further harm.

General Motors formed in Flint in 1908 and the auto manufacturing industry dominated the local economy for decades. The 1973 oil crisis and rising popularity of imported cars, among other factors, spurred the decline of the American auto industry and by the late 1980s the city was mired in a deep economic depression from which it has yet to recover. Flint is now considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country with high crime and unemployment rates. Homicides jumped 71% in 2015, 40% of residents live below the federal poverty level, and most full-scale grocery stores have closed, leaving residents with few options to buy healthy food.

In 2013 Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed Flint an Emergency Manager to address the city’s financial crisis. Flint is situated 70 miles from the shores of the Great Lakes, the largest group of fresh water bodies in the world. Nevertheless, in April 2014 the Flint City Council, at the prompting of Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz and promise of $19 million in savings over the next 8 years, voted to stop paying the City of Detroit for water from Lake Huron and instead utilize the local and notoriously polluted Flint River as its water source. It has since come to light that the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron, and the Department of Economic Quality, contrary to federal law, chose not to treat the water with anti-corrosive agents, which help build a protective coating within pipes preventing leaching of heavy metals into the water supply. Many homes in Flint still have lead pipes, and even newer systems can have lead in the pipe connections. The combination of lead pipes and corrosive water caused lead levels coming from the taps in Flint’s homes to quickly skyrocket to devastatingly harmful levels. Residents immediately became suspicious of the discolored and foul-smelling water coming from their taps, yet city and state officials insisted it was safe to drink for 18 months until the truth finally came to light, too late to save a generation of children from irreparable harm. The city even issued three boil-water advisories during this time, a practice which concentrates levels of lead in water.

The ongoing investigation of misconduct seems to show that city and state officials were well aware that Flint’s water was dangerous to drink and kept that information from the public for over a year. Just today Mother Jones reports particularly damning emails showing that Detroit shipped clean water to Flint city officials during this time. Mother Jones: Long Before Helping Flint, Michigan Officials Were Shipping Clean Water to Their Own Workers Many suspect that this criminal negligence was allowed in Flint because it’s a poor, minority community without a powerful political voice, and it still remains to be seen if any officials will be held accountable. To add insult to injury, residents of Flint are receiving letters demanding they pay for the toxic water that most residents stopped using, even for bathing, many months ago.

When pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s patients starting presenting skin conditions, hair loss, and expressing concerns about their drinking water, she began to investigate. Medicaid collects blood-lead level data on children, and a large percentage of Flint’s children are enrolled in this federal program. She utilized state and county data as well as digging through thousands of individual medical records and coordinated with an independent research team from Virginia Tech to build a database of Flint children’s blood-lead levels over time. Her painstaking research uncovered the alarming truth and she went public with her research on September 24, 2015. The state’s immediate response was their well-rehearsed line that extensive testing showed the water to be within acceptable levels and Dr. Mona’s data was dismissed as inaccurate. Over the next week state officials quietly compared Dr. Mona’s research to their own data, meanwhile publicly lashing out at her for being “irresponsible” and causing undue alarm.

Even at low levels lead can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. The effects of lead poisoning are considered irreversible. “If you were to put something in a population to keep them down for generation and generations to come, it would be lead,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said. “It’s a well-known, potent neurotoxin. There’s tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it’s been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child.” 8,657 children in Flint, Michigan have been exposed to lead since April 2014 and potentially hundreds of babies have been exposed in utero.

On Oct. 1, 2015, county commissioners declared a public health emergency. The city has ordered schools to stop running water in sinks and drinking fountains. On Oct. 8 Governor Rick Snyder announced a multi-million dollar plan to reconnect Flint to the City of Detroit’s water supply. $28 million in state funds have been promised for bottled water, health care, and infrastructure improvements. On Jan. 12 the National Guard was mobilized to distribute bottled water to residents and on Jan. 16 President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate and partially fund the response. No plan has been implemented to replace Flint’s lead pipes in the immediate future.

Dr. Mona’s work is far from over. She’s leading a committee of experts focusing on education, nutrition, and health to strategize ways to mitigate the effects of lead exposure and provide families with the support they need. “This is a unique opportunity to build a model public health program.”, she said. Her committee’s proposed solutions include hiring more school nurses, increasing special education services and programming, and promoting foods rich in iron, calcium, and Vitamin C which can limit lead adsorption, foods difficult to find in a city with few stores that sell fresh produce. Dr. Mona provides us inspiration and hope in the midst of tragedy and her example reminds us that one person speaking out and standing up for justice can achieve lasting change.

Dr. Mona’s committee has set up a foundation to accept private donations. Please take a few minutes to visit flintkids.com and read about the excellent work Dr. Mona and others are doing for this community.

Detroit Free Press: Flint doctor makes state see light about lead in water

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attishamona-hanna-attisha-1jpg-8f25eccdad644a23

Getting smart about plastics

Plastics have revolutionized industries across the globe from medical and aerospace advancements to electronics and packaging for foods and goods. Plastics have been used to extend the life of meats and vegetables, reducing food waste, and facilitate storage of clean drinking water. The high strength to weight ratio of plastics and performance over a wide range of temperatures as well as inexpensive production makes them so ubiquitous. However, an over-reliance on plastics and the appeal of single-use, “disposable” products has filled our oceans, wildlife, and virtually every ecosystem with plastics, many of which are not biodegradable.

A marine study published in PLOS ONE in April, 2014 found plastics in all of their sampling locations to a depth of 4.5km below the surface, in areas where humans have yet to even explore. That’s right, our trash got there before we did. Co-author Dr. Kerry Howell said, “This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans. Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans, and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us.”

Marine Litter Distribution and Density in European Seas, from the Shelves to Deep Basins

Non-biodegradable plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, or microplastics, which are easily mistaken for food and ingested by marine and terrestrial animals. If you’re in the mood for some scary images, Google the “great Pacific garbage patch”. A September 2015 evaluation of 186 seabird species concluded that 90% of seabirds have ingested plastics. Microplastics have permeated freshwater systems as well and wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to remove them from our water supplies.  In late 2015 President Obama signed legislation into law banning microplastics from personal care products.

So, how can we reduce our dependance on plastics? How can we encourage our communities to embrace plastic alternatives?

Carry a reusable water bottle and reusable bags in your car or bike basket so they’re always handy. Having water on-hand can help you skip the sugary sodas and juices too. Some reusable bags fold up small so you can easily keep them in your purse, backpack, or pocket. Forego straws. Wash and re-use plastic tubs and utensils. When selecting products, choose the one with the least plastic packaging. Buy your produce from local markets that don’t pre-package. Try out a new recipe instead of ordering takeout. Get on Pinterest and embrace your creative side by finding ways to repurpose items you might otherwise throw away. You can also often return packaging to local vendors – just ask. Baking soda, lemon, and vinegar make great cleaning products instead of buying harsh chemicals packaged in plastic. Bring your own garment bag and hangers to the dry cleaner. Use solid soap bars instead of liquids in plastic packaging. And, of course, what you can’t reuse, recycle. When you can’t avoid plastics, identify companies that are using bioplastics and choose those. Many of these ideas have the added benefit of better health and financial savings too!

Communities in 18 states have banned single-use plastic products such as plastic bags and water bottles. Read about how these communities accomplished the ban, then communicate with your local officials to encourage a similar ban. Start a MeetUp with like-minded members of your community to brainstorm solutions for your community’s specific needs, then advocate for these changes at city council meetings. Speak to your local school board about reducing single-use plastics in local schools and promoting environmental education and recycling services. Talk to your employer about encouraging recycling in your office or workplace and providing snack, beverage, and coffee options that minimize packaging and single-use products. Organize a river, beach, or park cleanup and make some new friends in the process. A group of like-minded people can accomplish great things!

What are you doing in your home and community to reduce reliance on plastics? Share your ideas!

The Riecken Foundation, and the importance of libraries

During my time in Honduras I had the pleasure of working in a community library built by the Riecken Foundation. The Riecken Foundation collaborates with rural city governments and volunteer citizens in Honduras and Guatemala to bring libraries to their communities. Each community is responsible for electing a board and librarians, securing land and a building for the library’s operations, and assuring librarians’ wages and operating expenses. In return the Foundation provides 80% of the cost of construction, books, computers, printers, photocopiers, library furniture, and staff training, as well as promoting a variety of programming, activities, and ongoing support. The Foundation has 53 libraries throughout Honduras and 12 in Guatemala. Please take a few minutes to learn about this excellent organization.

Riecken Community Libraries

In this digital age where we have information and resources constantly at our fingertips, what is the role of community libraries? How are libraries staying relevant in the midst of ever-changing technologies?

Libraries protect public access to information, for everyone. “If we accept the commodization of information… we will diminish the public’s right to know.” Patricia Shuman, former President of the American Library Association (ALA). Building a library can revitalize a declining neighborhood and raise property values, provide resources to small businesses and job seekers, offer free Internet access and promote computer literacy. In fact the Internet has actually made libraries more relevant, not less so, but serving as the only free source of computer and Internet access in most communities. Libraries help immigrants learn English and engage with their new community. Libraries preserve local history and cultural traditions for future generations. Few institutions can claim to serve a community’s needs so broadly as do libraries, from toddlers to senior citizens, across the racial, political, and economic spectrum.

What can we do to support our libraries?

Visit frequently! Check out the calendar of events and participate in the free activities offered. This month my local library is offering meditation classes, a class for first-time home buyers, financial planning and debt counseling, 3D printing and design, knitting and crocheting, book clubs, computer literacy courses in English and Spanish, and their website offers free courses for download. Take your kids or friends’ kids for regular afternoon visits.  Check out some of your favorite books and contact a local nursing home about reading to their residents. Join your local Friends of the Library group or start one. Serve as a library trustee. Attend school board meetings and advocate for a library in each local school, staffed with a certified school librarian. Embrace the opportunity to interact with members of your community of different ages and walks of life that you may not otherwise encounter. Embrace the open exchange of ideas that libraries allow.

How do you utilize your local library? Share your ideas on promoting and supporting libraries!

Community Centered: 23 Reasons Why Your Library Is the Most Important Place in Town


Links to Resources

Start or join a group of like-minded people in your community: Meetup.com

USA.gov: How to contact your elected officials

CSSP: Making a Difference in Your Neighborhood

Obama urged to grant temporary status to Central American immigrants

The Miami Herald reported this morning that more than 270 organizations across the country have signed a letter urging President Obama to grant TPS status to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants arriving in the US from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (link below). Many of these migrants are unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence in their home countries and seeking economic opportunities for their families.

US policy allows for rapid deportation of undocumented Mexican child migrants. Central American migrants, however, receive a court hearing, and the recent increase in migration has created a large backlog for these hearings causing thousands of children to spend upwards of three years with a distant relative or in foster care awaiting a decision. Almost 70,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the US in 2014.

Having served as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras from 2006 – 2008 I am emotionally invested in this issue and have followed it closely. The June 28, 2009 military coup which removed then President Manual Zelaya from office threw an already unstable political system into chaos and in 2010 Honduras earned the morbid distinction of having the highest peacetime murder rate in the world, peaking at 86.5 murders per 100,000 residents in 2011. For comparison, Mexico’s 2011 murder rate was 24 in 100,000; that of the US was 4.7 in 100,000.

The bulk of the violence can be attributed to gang activity fueled by the drug trade. The geographic location of these countries, between the drug-producing countries of South America and the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States, combined with political instability and poverty has allowed criminal activity and its accompanying violence to flourish unchecked. In January 2012 the United States Peace Corps suspended their 50-year operation in Honduras.

TPS, or Temporary Protected Status, a designation granted by the Secretary of Homeland Security, allows protection against deportation for nationals of the designated countries. TPS is granted when conditions in a country temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, such as ongoing armed conflict or an environmental disaster. Honduras was granted TPS status in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch decimated much of the country. El Salvador received TPS status in 2001 after a devastating earthquake.

So, what we can do?

We can stay informed and educate ourselves on this issue. We can communicate with our elected officials and urge them to find compassionate solutions to this crisis, following the example of the 270 organizations referenced in the article. We can support those organizations and others directly via financial contributions, volunteering our time, and spreading awareness of these organizations and their missions. We can open our homes to unaccompanied minors by becoming sponsors through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). We can support legislation to legalize marijuana, delivering a substantial blow to the power and revenue drug cartels now hold. We can help diminish the demand for illegal drugs in the US by telling our elected officials that the War on Drugs has failed and those energies and funds should be shifted to rehabilitation and education programs. We can support organizations that provide drug rehabilitation services via our funds and volunteer time, and support legislation that favors rehabilitation over incarceration.

These are my ideas. What are yours? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Miami Herald – Obama urged to grant temporary status to Central American immigrants