Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha couldn’t wait. The pediatrician had found elevated lead levels in the blood of children in Flint, Michigan. She had proof the city’s water, piped in from the Flint River, was poisoned with lead.
“As doctors and as academics, when we do research it gets vetted and your peers look at it. It’s a long process,” Hanna-Attisha said. “I did something totally disobedient in the academic doctor world: I literally walked out of my clinic and I stood up at a press conference and shared this research. Because there was no time. Every day that went by was another day that was putting our children at risk.”
She said she felt great for about a half an hour after going public. “I’m like, ‘Yes, this is awesome. I’m protecting kids. Things are going to change.’ ”
But that didn’t happen. Shortly after she shared the science, the state said she was wrong, that her research wasn’t consistent with their larger surveillance data. “Words that were said was that I was an unfortunate researcher,” she said, “that I was causing near hysteria, which is also sexist.”
She said officials had been dismissing the concerned people of Flint – parents, religious leaders, journalists, activists – for months. “I never should have had to do that research. Obviously the water crisis never should have started. It should have stopped when that first mom held a jug of brown water.”
She said she felt tiny, defeated. “I had an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome, that maybe I shouldn’t have done this. Maybe I should have just kept going about my business as a busy mom, pediatrician, wife.
“Nothing can prepare you for when the entire state goes after you and tells you you’re wrong.”
Of course, she wasn’t wrong. Neither were all the others who’d been demanding change for Flint, a city with a majority Black population. The city had begun using Flint River water in April 2014.
“So it took awhile,” said Hanna-Attisha, now an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University, “but finally with teamwork and persistence and more science, we did speak truth to power.”
How is the quality of water in Flint now?
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: Just a few weeks after (the press conference), we switched back to Great Lakes water. So that was in October of 2015. And since then our water quality has been improving over time. However, the year and a half that we were on this super-corrosive water damaged our lead pipes, and those are being replaced right now. Within a few months this year, in 2020, those pipes will all be replaced. And that is a huge success, we’ll only be the third city in the country that has replaced our lead pipes. But until those pipes are replaced, people are still on the precautions to filter their water and to use bottled water.
How are the kids who were exposed to the lead?
We’ve launched something called the Flint Registry that’s supported by the Centers for Disease Control, where we are identifying those who were exposed. Most importantly, getting them connected to the services to promote their health and development and following them over time. We are starting to get that data right now about how that population of children and even adults are doing. … There’s concerns with development and behavior and lots of other potential issues that may have been related to this water crisis.