Doctor pens book on her role in revealing Flint water crisis
By JEFF KAROUB
FLINT, Mich. — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha had hard evidence that thousands of people in Flint had been exposed to toxic lead in their drinking water. The pediatrician and public health expert figured city and state officials would share her shock and join her in alerting residents.
They did not.
Hanna-Attisha — who recounts the water crisis in a book that goes on sale Tuesday– had science on her side but not the scientific protocols of waiting for peer-review and publication. She opted not to wait.
“Kids did not have a day to spend,” Hanna-Attisha told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the release of “What The Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.”
“Eventually we did get this published and peer-reviewed. But when there’s an emergency and a crisis the most important thing is alerting the people.”
There’s been abundant shame and blame to go around since the pioneering industrial city that’s struggled with economic and racial woes for decades found itself in another disaster. Attisha, director of pediatric residency at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, lays out the breakdown across city, county, state and national lines. She includes herself in her role as a public health practitioner and advocate for initially assuring her patients that the tap water was safe to consume.
The book offers a tick-tock of the crisis, starting with how conversations with a childhood friend who became an environmental engineer got Hanna-Attisha looking more deeply and discovering widespread exposure to lead, which has been linked to developmental and behavioral problems. Hanna-Attisha goes further, railing against decades of officials in the U.S. and beyond disregarding public health, capitulating to industry, and ignoring the plight of poor, minority communities.
The story also details the wider impact once Flint’s plight was brought to light and finally acknowledged by people in power: More federal money is going to lead prevention and elimination programs and more policies and high-level discussions geared toward revising standards in cities and states. With taxpayer help, Flint itself has significantly expanded the number of school nurses, early intervention programs, health centers and free, year-round preschools.
Hanna-Attisha wasn’t the first to unearth the problem, which started when the city — in an effort to save money while under state control — tapped the Flint River for water in 2014 and 2015 and didn’t treat it to prevent pipe corrosion. Residents complained about ailments and brought discolored tap water to meetings.
Experts from Virginia Tech University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sampled and reported high lead levels in water from some homes. But local and state officials insisted the water was safe.
“I was the last domino in terms of uncovering this crisis. It should have stopped when that first mom said, ‘Something’s wrong with my water,'” said Hanna-Attisha, whose work has been widely recognized, including by PEN America , a prominent literary and human rights group, and Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People alongside Virginia Tech expert Marc Edwards. “It should not have taken a doctor with evidence of children with elevated lead levels to stop this crisis.”