While state agencies in Michigan long denied claims that the water in Flint was not safe to drink, several researchers and activists are credited with exposing the problem, including Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who presented her work in September to skeptical officials.
Flint water became contaminated with lead as a result of a decision to switch the city’s water source and not treat that water with an anti-corrosive. The water corroded the pipes and fixtures, causing lead to dissolve into the water. Even after switching back to the original water source, the water remains unsafe to drink.
Now, Dr. Hanna-Attisha is helping residents understand the problems of lead poisoning and is working to create programs for those already seeing its effects. She speaks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young about her view of the crisis and what she thinks needs to be done now.
Interview Highlights: Dr. Hanna-Attisha
On how she discovered that there was lead in the water
“We were hearing reports of lead in the water by the Virginia Tech group and when we, as pediatricians, hear about lead anywhere we need to act. We know lead. When we started to do our research, we weren’t seeing kids coming in with symptoms of lead poisoning because lead is largely asymptomatic, it has no symptoms. It’s known to be kind of a silent pediatric epidemic. But we routinely screened children for lead and what we were seeing when we looked back at our numbers was that the percentage of kids with elevated levels doubled in the whole city and in some neighborhoods it tripled. And so we held this press conference and you don’t release research at press conferences but we had an ethical, moral obligation to inform the community that the water has lead and it looks like it’s getting into the bodies of children.”
On the state’s response
“For almost two years the state had been denying this was an issue. Right when the water switch happened in April 2014, residents were complaining the water was brown, that it looked gross, it tasted gross. And so the moms were talking, the activists, the pastors. Water experts came in and had concerns. And it was deny, deny, deny. And then when we shared our results at our press conference we were attacked. They were like ‘No, this is wrong, you are an unfortunate researcher, you’re causing near hysteria, our numbers are not consistent with your numbers.’”
On state officials’ non-reaction
“You don’t mess around with lead. You don’t mess around with water. That is an essential life need. Even if you have an inkling of concern, even if you have the spike that is abnormal, you don’t write it off, you dig and you dig and you dig. Because these are people and these are vulnerable children. They already have every disparity in the world and then we’ve added this disparity.”
On the harmful effects of lead
“It is an irreversible neurotoxin. We worry about it so much because it impacts your cognition and your behavior. But it really affects every organ system. It actually drops a child’s IQ and it causes behavior problems, problems focusing, problems doing schoolwork. Not every kid is going to have every problem, but in large-scale studies this is what lead does. But we’re also giving them hope and interventions that they can do now to mitigate the impact of this exposure. There’s no pill, we can’t reverse this but we can throw every single resource at these kids now so they don’t have the full consequences of these problems.”
On the steps that can be taken
“We are advocating for evidence-based interventions that work for all children who are at risk of developmental issues, so early literature programs and universal preschool, access to nutrition. For example, today in our farmers market we have a lead-focused cooking class. We’re teaching families how to cook diets high in iron, calcium and vitamin C. These are some practical interventions we are putting in place to give families things that they can do to protect themselves.”
- Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center, a public hospital in Flint. She tweets @MonaHannaA.
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