Flint, MI — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a hero. Though it’s possible you haven’t heard her name yet, you probably will soon — she’s responsible for ringing the original alarm bell about the lead contamination of Flint’s public water supply.
And the ordeal Hanna-Attisha endured in order to do so — including the nearly slanderous attempt by public officials to discredit her research — makes her an irreproachable champion of integrity.
“She was a doc on the front lines who knows to pick up the phone … rattle some cages and say, ‘Hey, come here, we’ve got a problem,’” Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical examiner for the State of Michigan, said of Hanna-Attisha, reported the Detroit Free Press.
Her discovery had its roots in a conversation over dinner with old friends in August of last year, when one — a former water quality expert with the EPA who had knowledge of corrosion issues with the city’s water — said, “I’m sure there’s lead issues. Have you guys looked at lead levels in children?” In an interview with the Oakland Press, Hanna-Attisha explained her reaction to the query:
“When I heard that, as a pediatrician, whenever you hear about lead, you absolutely freak out.
“Children are always affected more by lead than adults. Lead is a neurotoxin. It affects your brain and your development. It affects children who are developing their neurological systems the most. That’s why we worry about children. Lead should never hit the body of a child. There is no safe level of lead in a child.”
Hanna-Attisha and her colleagues examined around 3,000 blood samples taken from students in and around the Flint area, both before and after the city switched from Detroit’s water supply. “What we found was alarming, but not surprising, based on what we knew about the water,” Hanna-Attisha said in an interview with Democracy Now. “The percentage of children with elevated lead levels doubled in the whole city, and in some neighborhoods, it tripled. And it directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest.”
Lead abatement programs and the removal of the toxin from gasoline had created a steady decline in children’s blood lead levels for years — until the city switched its supply; but “It was a striking increase in what we saw,” Hanna-Attisha said.
Aside from heading the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, the 38-year-old doctor and mother is also a professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University College of Medicine. That provided her the perfect background in clinical and research medicine to understand the grave importance those figures were revealing. She and the others diligently checked and re-checked the numbers “a zillion times,” until it became clear the City of Flint was facing an emergency-level lead contamination issue.
Hanna-Attisha sprang into action — again.
“So we shared these results at a press conference, and you don’t usually share research at press conferences. It’s supposed to be shared in published medical journals, which now [has been done]. But we had an ethical, moral, professional responsibility to alert our community about this crisis, this emergency.”
Her judgment call to err on the side of public safety immediately garnered derisive criticism, even from state officials, who called Hanna-Attisha “an unfortunate researcher” who was “causing near hysteria” from “splicing and dicing numbers” — all because the state’s findings didn’t match hers. “When the state, with a team of like 50 epidemiologists, tells you you’re wrong, you second-guess yourself,” she told Democracy Now.
Eventually, after a couple weeks of being publicly castigated by officials in the media — to the point where she “felt physically ill” at least once — they relented, “relooked at their numbers,” and admitted their data did, indeed, match what Hanna-Attisha had concluded.
But there is certainly a long way to go. Hanna-Attisha explained the state’s acknowledgement of the lead contamination and poisoning in Flint might not go quite far enough:
“I was at a press conference with the governor and state health officials, who we are working with now. However, they said that only 43 people since October had elevated lead levels. And it really minimizes this population-wide exposure. This is an entire population that was exposed to this neurotoxin. So, when you say these small numbers, it just — once again, the population loses trust in government and in their ability to protect people.”