By Victoria Mullen
“When I first heard there was lead in the water, it was a call to action,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of Hurley Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Residency Program.
The 39-year-old mother of two daughters shared her perspective on the Flint water crisis with a crowd of 400 at the ACLU’s third annual luncheon, ‘Standing Together For Justice’ on Wednesday, May 18, at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
“Pediatricians–we know about lead, it’s a no-brainer,” said Dr. Mona. “We know what lead can do to our children, especially our most vulnerable children. It impacts cognition, it impacts behavior, it impacts the entire life-course trajectory.”
The Flint-based pediatrician sees many of the city’s poorest families, and it was Dr. Mona who raised the alarm about the harmful lead levels seen in Flint-area children after the emergency manager ordered a switch from treated Lake Huron water to untreated Flint River water in April 2014. The idea was to save $5 million in less than two years.
The extent of the problem came to light after a Virginia Tech researcher had discovered Flint River water to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. Dr. Mona compared Flint children’s blood tests with results from kids in adjacent Genesee County. What she found disturbed her: A shocking rise in lead levels between January and September 2015. She saw lead levels that were twice what they were a year before, and sometimes even three times higher, depending on the child’s location within Flint.
“We can’t take this away,” said Dr. Mona. “There’s no antidote, there’s no pill.”
When state officials refused to acknowledge the problem, Dr. Mona felt the urgency to share these findings with the public.
“We normally don’t release medical findings at a press conference,” said Dr. Mona. “But we had this ethical, moral and professional obligation to share this information with the public as quickly as possible, because it was so dangerous.”
The state still refused to acknowledge the issue.
ACLU investigative reporter Curt Guyette was one of the first reporters to uncover the story and try to get the state government to pay attention to the issue.
“I was hired to investigate and write about issues involving emergency management in Michigan, and I started going up to Flint because they were under the control of an emergency manager,” Guyette said. “It was the emergency manager who unilaterally made the decision to begin using the Flint River as the city’s water source.
“People were complaining about the qualify of the water, the way it looked, the way it tasted, the way it smelled. And so we did a short documentary about the problems people were experiencing.”
Said ACLU attorney, Jay Kaplan, “Nothing like this should ever happen in any civilized place, especially where the government is not being responsive. We’re concerned about communities and we’re concerned about people. We work to ensure that everyone is afforded their rights and their civil liberties, regardless of one’s economic status or where they live or what their race might be.
“Everyone is afforded those protections, and I think sometimes it can be selective in terms of the way the government will work.”
The irony of this tragedy occurring in a state that is surrounded by the largest source of fresh water in the world is not lost on Dr. Mona. Two years on, the water is still not safe to drink. But she wants people to know that something positive has come out of this tragedy.
“There are Flints everywhere,” she said. “There are injustices everywhere and there have been so many bright stories that have happened because of Flint. People across the nation are talking about lead, they’re talking about infrastructure, about democracy, about environmental injustice, about poverty, about forgotten people in forgotten places.”
Dr. Mona is working to actively flip the story. She directs the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Public Health Initiative, an innovative and model public health program to research, monitor and mitigate the impact of lead in Flint’s drinking water.
“We want the word ‘Flint’ to not mean disaster,” she said. “We want it to mean hope. So, we are working everyday to wrap these children around with interventions to promote their development.
“Flint kids are smart and they’re strong and they’re beautiful. We’re going to make sure they don’t slip through the cracks and that they get everything that they deserve.”