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.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha