Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha still finds the whole Flint water crisis hard to believe.
“In the middle of the Great Lakes, in 2015, we have poisoned a population,” she said. “It’s shocking.”
The director of Hurley Medical Center’s Pediatric Residency Program is not exaggerating when talking about the scandal of Flint’s water. In April 2014, the city’s emergency manager switched from the Detroit Water System to water from the Flint River to save money. Though residents immediately began complaining about the funny look and bad taste of the water coming from their taps, the state kept insisting everything was fine. But the river’s corrosive water was allowing lead from the pipes to leach in.
Hanna-Attisha, whose background is in public health, wasn’t buying it, especially after a Virginia Tech researcher said the water contained an undeniable presence of lead. That prompted Hanna-Attisha to compare blood level test results for 1,746 children in Flint before and after April 2014 – and find that the percentage of kids with elevated levels of lead had doubled.
“We have gotten the lead out of paint and out of gas, and every year the percentage of children with it decreases. To see an increase was shocking,” she said. “But when we announced the results, the state called me ‘an unfortunate researcher causing near hysteria,’ an ‘irresponsible researcher.’”
Hanna-Attisha was horrified – not only by the presence of lead but by the state’s stubborn insistence that the water was safe.
“When you do research you’re always paranoid — you check, double check, triple check. The numbers don’t lie. But when the state says you’re wrong, you second guess yourself. I was physically ill,” she said.
“After about a week of criticizing the work and finally after some good conversations with some intelligent people at the state, they realized how to look at the data and they realized their numbers were the same,” she added. “Before that, it was just deny, deny, deny.”
Local public health officials declared a public health emergency on October 1, and the state admitted to the lead problem the next day. Flint was switched back to Detroit’s water system (it plans to join a new system that gets water from Lake Huron next year) but the water is still being piped into homes and businesses via the city’s old corroded pipes.
On October 15, the state legislature unanimously passed a bill allocating $9.3 million to address the crisis. The city will put corrosion control agents in the water it buys from Detroit to help reduce damage caused to water mains and service lines. There is another effort underway in the legislature to allocate $50 million to replace lead service pipes and provide support and educational services for children poisoned by the water.
(And, in continuing fallout, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling — who had also insisted the water was safe — was voted out of office on Election Day by newcomer Karen Weaver, who pledges to “rebuild trust” between residents and their government.)
Hanna-Attisha, a first-generation Chaldean American, said she hopes to see legal action on behalf of Flint’s citizens, who used lead-poisoned water for more than 16 months.
“People need to go to jail – this was criminal,” she said. “If I am in the OR and have a bad outcome I lose my license and I get sued. This was clear, irresponsible neglect and I believe there will be criminal investigations. There’s been tampering with data, discarding some samples. And it took evidence that children were being poisoned for anything to happen.”
Such a disaster would never happen in a wealthy suburb, Hanna-Attisha maintains.
“There is a 40 percent poverty rate in Flint vs. 16 percent for the rest of the state. This would only happen in communities like Flint that are already disenfranchised. It would never happen in Bloomfield Hills. These people are so beat down, and then you give them lead. Just because you have no money doesn’t mean you are not entitled to safe drinking water. If you deliberately wanted to put a poison in a population to keep them down, this is what you would do. I don’t believe it was deliberate, but it was highly preventible.”
Lead, she explained, is an irreversible toxin directly linked to violent offenses, and even small amounts can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning and can suffer problems in both mental and physical development.
Lead poisoning causes genetic changes that last generations. The effects of the poisoned water will have repercussions for decades, said Hanna-Attisha.
“In five years we will likely see an increase of children who need special education services,” she said. “In 10 years we will likely see more kids with behavior problems and increased diagnoses of ADHD. In 15 years, we will see more problems in the criminal justice system. All these costs are in the multiple billions.”
That’s why, she said, it is essential that everyone from federal and state governments to private foundations join forces to help Flint’s residents, particularly its children. Hanna-Attisha is part of the newly formed Flint Lead Innovation Team, which the state has assembled to combat the effects of lead poisoning. This includes pushing good nutrition (notoriously lacking in poor populations), increased early-intervention programs like Head Start and long-term follow-ups with physicians.
“We have a really unique opportunity to build a model health program where we can buffer these kids so we don’t see these terrible consequences,” said Hanna-Attisha. “But it will take a lot of resources. I’m angry, but I’m using that to do some of the secondary prevention work. Our community has been physically traumatized and they think that every kid has been damned. We need to give them hope.”
Hanna-Attisha, the mother of two, has taken on hero status as the water scandal continues to make news. Her ignored warnings about the water and refusal to give up has led to interviews with media as diverse as the BBC and Al-Jazeera.
“It’s been absolutely surreal – one day I had seven media interviews. It’s gone international,” she said of her newfound fame. “I came to work in Flint to do pediatric public health. It’s like this was destined for me to do this.”
By Joyce Wiswell