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Q&A: Pediatrician who exposed Flint Water Crisis urges community teamwork


Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the author of “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” a first-hand account of the events of the Flint Water Crisis.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha traveled to Central Michigan University on Feb. 25 for a conversation about the Flint Water Crisis and residents' ongoing challenges with access to clean water.

Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician, scientist and public health activist who has been called before the United States Congress three times to speak about the Flint Water Crisis. She was awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award from PEN America, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Hanna-Attisha is the author of “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” a firsthand account of the events of the Flint Water Crisis.

On Sept. 24, Hanna-Attisha revealed in a press conference at Flint's Hurley Medical Center that her research in children's blod levels showed that the presence of lead had doubled since the source of Flint's water had switched from the Detroit River to Flint River in April 2014.

Hanna-Attisha sat down with Central Michigan Life before her speech to answer a few questions about the Flint Water Crisis.

How would you compare Flint's Water Crisis to other Michigan cities?

What happened in Flint is probably the signature environmental public health disaster in Michigan but really also the nation. There's not much that compares to what happened in Flint in terms of the water crisis, the environmental injustice, the lost democracy, so it’s hard to compare. However, what Flint has been able to do is really shine a light on other issues in our state and in our nation, especially when it comes to water. Because of Flint, many more communities across the country are realizing, ‘Hey we have problems with our water too!’ Not lead, but now PFAS, PFOA and all these other things are contaminating our water. So the really awesome thing--I call it the positive ripple effect of what happened in Flint is we’ve been able to raise the nation's consciousness on the safety of our drinking water and how we all have a role to play on making it better.

What problems are still happening with the Flint Water Crisis?

That was one of the hardest parts about writing this book. There was no clear "The End." The work is ongoing in Flint, and you can very much say the crisis is still ongoing. When it comes to water, we are still under the public health advisory to drink bottled and filtered water because our pipes are being replaced. So our water quality is a lot better, but because we are doing that infrastructure work where we’re replacing our pipes, that has the potential to increase lead release which is why people are taking precautions. That’s one part of the crisis that’s ongoing, is people's dependence on filtered or bottled water. The other part of the crisis that’s ongoing is our long-term recovery. This is a crisis that needs a lot of resources not just for a couple years but really for decades to make sure that we can recover and thrive. That really makes the recovery ongoing.

How optimistic are you that eventually this problem will be solved?

I think actually within a few months, sometime in 2020, all of our pipes will be replaced. That's amazing, and we actually will only be the third city in the country that has replaced all their lead pipes. However, not everybody is just going to turn on their water and drink again. I think the biggest crisis that has happened is the loss of trust. People don't trust the government anymore because they were betrayed, and that's going to take a long time to come back. That trust, when you turn on your tap and it's safe, was lost because for so long people were told that it was OK when it wasn't OK.

How has the media coverage affected the Flint Water Crisis?

It has all helped. A big part of my book is the power of team, and a big part of that team is the journalists, so thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for shining a light on stories that are often untold. Investigative journalists played a huge role in this story. We are so grateful to them. Media also helped elevate this story to become a national spotlight.

What was it like being called before Congress to testify on the Flint Water Crisis?

Awesome! I actually have testified thrice before Congress. The last time was just a couple weeks ago. I feel like I have been blessed and privileged to have a microphone and a platform to be able to make an impact on the lives of children, not just in Flint, but all over the country. I am fortunate to testify to raise awareness about what happened in Flint and strengthen some of the national rules which are really weak. It is a privilege, and I am so fortunate to be able to use my voice to hopefully make sure that things like Flint never happen again.

What can we as a community do to help our environment?

Every community has different experiences. The concern with a lot of environmental health issues is that you don’t often experience anything, especially not acutely, right after a potential exposure. I think the most important thing that communities need to do, which is the biggest lesson from Flint, is stay awake. The book is called ‘What the Eyes Don’t See.’ Eyes were closed to this issue, to Flint, to the people, to the problem. A big lesson is that we all need to keep our eyes open, we need to stay curious, we need to ask questions, we need to hold folks accountable, we need to demand that our environment is safe and clean, because that impacts all of us. There's a lot that communities can do. I think another lesson of the story for communities is the importance of working in a team. Find your friends, find your peeps, find other folks who care about this issue too. Talk to them at the grocery store in line, wherever you are. I think when we care about something, we think we’re the only people that care about something. But there’s a lot of folks out there that often care about the same things we do. So find them, find your friends.