In September 2015, when the state of Michigan was still adamantly denying that the water in Flint was contaminated with lead, Hurley Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha unveiled a study of Flint children that proved conclusively that the state’s denials were false and that Flint was enmeshed in a full-blown public-health disaster.

Not long after an ACLU of Michigan report about lead-contaminated water in one Flint home sparked a citizen-led study of water in nearly 300 other city homes, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, unveiled the results of her own study, one which examined blood-lead levels in Flint children before and after the city was forced to switch its water source to the caustic Flint River. Her research uncovered extraordinary differences in lead levels. 

Initially, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration stridently attacked the study. However, once political leaders realized Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings were unassailable, they soon began to acknowledge the veracity of her work. She had proven beyond any doubt that the water supply in a city of nearly 100,000 people had been polluted with a powerful neurotoxin—and that that contamination was exacting a heavy toll on the city’s most vulnerable population.

It was a major victory for Flint residents, who, in a breathtaking assault on democracy, had endured seeing their elected officials stripped of and replaced by a series of state-appointed emergency managers. Deprived of the vote and ignored by the autocratic state appointees who’d supplanted their local officials, Flint citizens had been grappling with the water crisis alone for several months before Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study finally quieted false government claims about the water’s safety.

In the months since her study, Hanna-Attisha has assumed a leading role as a high-profile advocate for Flint and its children, demanding that the state and federal governments deliver all the resources needed to ensure that a city poisoned by lead can turn around the tragedy.

Ahead of her keynote speech at the ACLU Standing for Justice Luncheon in Grand Rapids on May 18, Dr. Hanna-Attisha took some time to offer a primer on the situation in Flint and to explain out how those concerned about the problems in Flint can help.

What should people know about what is happening in Flint now?

The most important thing that needs to be shared is that the water is not yet safe. We are now in our third year with water that people can't drink. In April 2016, we had one home with lead levels of 22,905 parts per billion. [Editor's Note: Water is considered hazardous waste when it has lead levels of 5,000 parts per billion.]

Before that, there were homes with lead levels of 11,000 parts per million. And there are many, many homes exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. So the water is not safe. Eighteen months of the corrosive water that was not treated significantly damaged our infrastructure. We've been on treated [Detroit] water for six months, with extra treatment being added, and the water still is not safe.

It is mind boggling that, in 2016, we have a great American city in the middle of the Great Lakes, and we still don't have access to safe drinking water.

Given that, what needs to be done at this point?

The message still needs to be put out there that unfiltered water is still not safe and people need to continue taking precautions. That's the most important thing. People who are particularly vulnerable, pregnant women and children under the age of six are not supposed to use even filtered water; it is recommended that they use bottled water. So the most important thing is to continue taking precautions.

The next most important thing is what we do next.

Unlike any other emergency or disaster, like a tornado, a flood, etc., you clean up and you are OK. This is unlike any of that. You don't just clean up from this kind of disaster. You don't just say that the water is safe and everything is going to be fine. This is something that may have consequences for decades and generations to come if we do not invest in our children.

It was just announced that a number of private sector philanthropies are promising $125 million for Flint. What was your reaction to that?

That was amazing news, that the philanthropies will be making that kind of money available for health, nutrition, economic development. I'm looking forward to seeing the same sort of commitment from the state legislature and the federal government. Congress has done nothing for Flint. Zero dollars have come from Congress for Flint. It is mind boggling when you consider that we will do all these things for other disasters, but because this was a manmade disaster Congress hasn't freed up any funds. There is urgency to that.

For a child who is 2-year-old now, for her entire two years of life, during the time of her most critical brain development, she was potentially exposed to something that might put her future at risk.

We are not going to pretend that this is a generation that we can just throw away. We are not going to do nothing. These kids obviously did nothing wrong. They just lived in a poor city that didn't treat its water properly. We have to get the resources for the long-term commitment to ensure that our population is going to be OK. We can't just say our kids are going to be OK without providing the resources to make sure that happens.

It seems that one thing people outside of Flint really don't get is how traumatized the residents there are by all of this. Can you talk about that?

Absolutely. What we are seeing right now is like PTSD for the entire community. These moms come into our clinic, with their little kids, with these looks of fear and anxiety and guilt. They'll get through one sentence, and then they will start crying, or yelling. It is completely understandable. The people of Flint are severely traumatized. And with good reason. Every government agency that was supposed to protect these people failed them. So they feel let down and lied to and betrayed, which is all true.

But they also have a fear of the unknown. They very much hear what is on TV, and they hear brain damage and neurotoxins, and they don't know what is going to happen to their kids. They also feel a lot of guilt. In their guy they probably knew that this water wasn't great. It was brown, and everything else, but they didn't have the financial alternatives to give their children something else.

The thing right now that we most acutely see is that trauma.

Hearing you speak recently, it seems as if you are very much trying to change the narrative from one of doom and gloom to one that is more optimistic, conveying the message that this is a problem we can address.

When I'm talking to Congress, I talk about the doom and gloom. But when it is with families, when I'm with these kids, when I'm talking to groups or at town hall meetings, they need hope. They need reassurance. Not every kid is going to have problems. We have to share the stories of what can be done to make things better.

We don't want these kids to be stigmatized. In my clinic, when I see a kid the message I convey is one of hope and reassurance. And empowerment. We can do things to help our kids, to promote their brain development. So it's very important to convey the message to our community, and our kids especially, that with great nutrition, and with great education, and with great healthcare we can immediately mitigate the consequences of this.

Our kids are brave and they're smart, and they're strong, and we are going to read to them and sing to them and give them good nutrition and send them to pre-school and get them to the doctor and do all these things to make sure they have the brightest future possible ahead of them.

What we are trying to do is unprecedented. We used to have one school nurse in all of Flint schools. We now have 10 because of our advocacy work. We're giving out these nutrition prescriptions in our clinic. We got a $100,000 grant – that's $100,000 of great nutrition that's now going to our kids. So I am optimistic, because I see things actually coming in. It doesn't make what happened OK, but it can help mitigate this.

You know, lead was only one risk factor. If you look at what impacts children's development, it is poverty, it is parenting, it is nutrition, it is maternal education, it is domestic violence, it is all these other things that are well-known causes of developmental risk. And our Flint kids already had so many of those risks. You look at our poverty rate, and our high violent crime rate, and our high unemployment rate, and all these things. So our kids already had all of these things against them in terms of development. And then the lead was added on.

So the things we are proposing and advocating for that we are trying to get funding for, statewide and federally and from philanthropies, are things that we know protect children. We know these things promote children's development no matter what the adversity is, if it lead or if it is poverty.

But people remain very upset…

People are so angry. And rightly so. It is almost as if this community needs to go through a truth and reconciliation process. The community very much wants accountability. They want to know who knew what when. They want to see criminal charges brought. They want all that. Because not until that happens can they start the very long process of healing.

The damage to the public trust…

I don't know how that is ever going to come back. That is going to take a very, very long time.

But I'm a pediatrician. My job is to make sure to use my voice to what is best for in terms of healthcare and medicine for these kids. If I know that evidence tells me that pre-school will help, then that is what I'm advocating for. These are things all kids with adversities need. But our Flint kids especially need this.

You have been thrust into this role of being an advocate for Flint in general. How does it feel to find yourself in such a high-profile situation?

(Laughs) It is kind of weird. It has been exhausting. It has been exhilarating. I never would have anticipated this. I'm grateful for the opportunity to give back to my community, and I'm humbled that I can do this. And if I can keep doing it, that's great. But it is something that I do for the community, in partnership with the community, keeping very much focused on a brighter tomorrow.

The same urgency when had we were doing our research [last September] – that urgency we felt to figure out what was going on – that same urgency has been ongoing for the past eight months, because if we don't keep talking about Flint, if we don't keep talking about these kids, then we are slowly losing the national eye and we will be unable to garner the resources that we need for next couple of decades of work.

So I will continue to talk to whomever, and to go anywhere, to share the flint story, to get the resources we need for these kids, but also very much to prevent another Flint, because what happened here should never have happened.

If we elevate this story, as we've been doing, we can hopefully prevent it from ever happening again. You already see there have been national repercussions. People are talking about lead in a way that wasn't happening before. They are talking about aging infrastructure. They are talking about water quality. They are talking about environmental injustice. All over the country. I got a call from a LA Times reporter

There have so many good things that have happened because of Flint. It is amazing. If we are able to protect other children in other places, that is awesome.

To talk about good things to come out of a horrible tragedy like this, to talk about getting recognition for having done the right thing, is it hard reconciling those things?

I hate it. I hate the awards and the recognition. I yell at my husband whenever he posts something on Facebook, and ask him to please stop, because it is uncomfortable. It's absolutely too much. And it wasn't just me, and it wasn't just [Virginia Tech professor] Marc Edwards.

And this isn't something that is over. This story is just beginning.

But what this story has done, and, like I said during the graduation speech at Michigan State University, the narrative isn't just about Flint. It is about injustice everywhere. You don't have to come to Flint to fight the good fight. There are injustices everywhere.

So, if this attention inspires our young, especially our young women, to use their brains, and to fight against injustices, and to not remain silent, and to not ignore people, then that is a good thing.

The heroes of this story are the people of Flint. There has been this incredibly cast of characters from many walks of life and disciplines, who were part of the story. But the real heroes are the people of Flint. So I try to try to remain humble, I try to remain grounded, and I try to remain focused on what is best for the community, and what best for the kids.

When people ask what they can do to help, what do you tell them?

I've been directing people to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund, which people can find out about at FlintKids.org. We don't need water. We don't need people to donate filters. This fund is an investment in tomorrow. It is for literacy programs. It is for nutrition programs. So people can donate to that. They can donate kids' books to the library, and they can also look within their own communities, because there are injustices everywhere.

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