Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, uncovered the extent of the problems caused by lead in the city’s water supply. It’s become one of the most serious environmental challenges in recent memory.
Now, she’s written a book about the crisis.
“What The Eyes Don’t See” recounts her life story, the discovery of lead in the water, and the aftermath of the disaster.
WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha about writing the book.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: I started writing this book over two years ago, and I knew even back then that we would need a way to shine a spotlight back on Flint. I knew the nation's attention would fade, completely understandably, but I knew that our issues were long-term and I wanted people to recognize that Flint is still there.
Scott Pohl: Is there a particular meaning to the title you've chosen, “What The Eyes Don't See”?
MHA: It means many things, and I encourage the readers to kind of dig deep and find out what their meanings are. It's about the very literal. We do not see lead in water. We also do not see the consequences of lead right away, but ultimately it's about people and places and problems that we choose not to see that are taking place all over, and ignore these things. Then, it's about our ability and our power, the power within really all of us, to open our eyes and to see these things and to take action and to make a difference in our communities.
SP: Your dedication for the book is “To the children of Flint.” Can you explain choosing that dedication?
MHA: The kids of Flint are my inspiration. They are what wake me up every day, they are the ones that give me hope, they are brave and they are bright and they are smart and they are resilient, and it is the children of Flint that that I owe this story to. It's a privilege to be able to share the story about them, but it is a privilege to be a physician who is able to care for them.
SP: One might wonder then that since you have dedicated the book to the children of Flint, if you're sharing the profits from book sales with the children of Flint in some fashion.
MHA: Absolutely, and that is one of the reasons why I wrote this book. A portion of the proceeds go to our Flint kids fund. Shortly after the crisis we created the Flint Child Health and Development Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Writing this book is a mechanism to give back to that fund but also to go out and speak, and every one of my speaking events provides more information about that fund.
SP: A big part of your book that I think some people might be surprised by, hopefully pleasantly surprised by, is how big a portion of the story is your own personal immigrant story. Can you explain how your story fits in with the water crisis in Flint?
MHA: Absolutely. This is not just a Flint book. This is a memoir, and that means there's a lot of me in this book. I thought it would have been easy to write just a Flint book, a Flint water crisis book, but I took a risk and I wanted to include my immigrant story into this book because no matter how I tried, when I was writing the story I couldn't separate the two. A first-generation Iraqi immigrant, we came to this country fleeing a dictatorship. We came to this country for freedom and opportunity and democracy. And I wake up every day fortunate and grateful to be in this country, but also very much knowing what injustice is like and could be like. It is with that lens that I see the world, and that has framed my career choice, that has framed the work that I do and that ultimately framed my response to this crisis.
SP: I'd like to ask you about what was probably a difficult period of time, when you knew something was going on and that it was related to the quality of the water in Flint. Yet, you didn't feel comfortable with the notion of going public with what you were finding amongst the children you treat. Can you tell me about that period where you thought something was going on, maybe even knew something was going on, but couldn't really go public or tell patients? What was that like?
MHA: For so long, I was reassuring my patients, telling them everything was fine because I was being reassured by government. Moms would come and say “is it okay for me to mix my baby's formula with tap water?”, and I would say “of course it's OK, it's America, it’s the 21st century, there’s laws and regulations and we're in the middle of the Great Lakes! Of course it's OK.” They say there is a back area where it’s being treated, everything seems to be OK. Not until I heard about the possibility of lead in the water did I start to realize that it's not OK, and when I realized that, every patient I saw was told to take precautions. There was a period before getting that hard evidence where I wanted to scream from the rooftops and alert people that there was a problem, but I couldn't yet because I didn't have that data, and the number of data was too small and I had to get a bigger sample size. So there was a period of waiting and that was hard, because I wanted to tell everybody that there was concerns and that's ultimately why we had a press conference. In academics and medicine you don't share research at a press conference, you publish. You present your work at research conferences. That takes a long time, so we did take a shortcut by sharing this before I had gone through that peer review process, because our children did not have another day to spare.
SP: When I heard about your book, I expected it to get lots of coverage from the news media here in Michigan, but it's gone far beyond that: coverage on the CBS Sunday Morning Show, you've been on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. The Flint story continues to get national attention. That's a good thing I'm sure you think, not just in terms of book sales and promotion but that people continue to know that there is a problem that hasn't yet completely been solved in Flint.
MHA: Yeah I know! That’s absolutely why I decided to write this book, so that people would pay attention to Flint again. We are doing amazing things in Flint and I want people to know that not only do we have these ongoing issues with water and the access and affordability water, but I wanted people to know about the awesome things that we are doing in Flint. This story very much is about that hope, and I want other cities to learn from us. We had this crisis but we have rolled up our sleeves in the city, and we have invested in children. We have things like child care centers and literacy expansion and home visiting programs and Medicaid expansion, nutrition, prescription and mobile grocery stores. It is a place of creativity and innovation and that's also what we want to share.
SP: I'd like to ask you about your recent flow of patient traffic at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, the extent to which children continue to suffer from the ill effects of being exposed to lead, if things are getting any better amongst the patients you see. How would you describe things?
MHA: That's also part of the title “What The Eyes Don’t See.” You do not acutely see the consequences of lead exposure. Lead is known as a silent pediatric epidemic. You see the consequences maybe years and maybe decades later, and people ask me that all the time, “how are the Flint kids doing?”. We are working hard to objectively answer that in a population level way. We have recently launched the Flint Registry, flintregistry.org. This is our way to find out how the people of Flint are doing, their health and their development, ongoing lead exposure. Get them connected to the resources to limit any consequences and then follow up with them. This registry is modeled after other large-scale registries like the World Trade Center registry, but we're taking it a step further. Those registries were created by and large to just see how people are doing, to see the consequences of disaster. We are doing this to not see the consequences of a disaster; this is a service registry so that in five, ten, 15 years we can tell you “yeah, this happened” but we were able to do this, this, and, this for this person, and this is how they're doing.
SP: I've heard you say that even though the state of Michigan considers the water in Flint to be safe now and distribution of bottled water has ended, you won't drink the tap water yourself. Can you explain why? And tell me what you’re advising patients about drinking the water or using it for other purposes.
MHA: I will not drink the tap water in Flint, nor will I drink it anywhere else. This process has taught me a lot about water quality in our nation and I have learned that the federal laws, the rules on the books, specifically the lead and copper rules, are weak. We were never meant to have lead-free water in this nation because of those laws. Michigan has taken a brave step forward recently and has drafted a lead and copper rule that actually exceeds federal standards. That's awesome, but we have more to do nationally to strengthen these regulations, specifically that lead and copper rule. The action level is too high. It has not caught up with the science that we now know of, that there is no safe level of lead.
SP: The governor and state lawmakers are talking about requiring every lead service line in Michigan to be replaced over a certain period of time. What can you tell me about that and how you think that might play out?
MHA: That is exactly the direction we need to be going. We are learning from this crisis. There is lead in all of our plumbing. We were stubbornly slow as a nation to restrict lead in our plumbing. Those service lines, which are the lines that go from your water main to your home, weren’t restriction until 1986, but there was actually lead that was allowable in brass fixtures until 2014. Lead is a problem especially in the Northeast. In the Midwest, we've known about it for decades about lead in our plumbing. Flint was not the first time we've had a lead in water disaster, there was even an even worse one in Washington D.C. over a decade ago. We need to learn from these disasters. We need to invest in our infrastructure to make sure that our children are ultimately protected because now, unlike those other times, there’s been amazing science about lead toxicity, and we know that even very low levels can impact children's cognition and behavior and their entire life course trajectory.