She’s been hailed as a hero for testing and analyzing lead levels in her young patients’ blood, then standing up against critics, including the state, and sounding the alarm when results indicated something was terribly wrong with Flint’s drinking water.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s discovery and her subsequent public advocacy for the people of Flint has led to her twice being called to testify before the U.S. Congress, being awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award from PEN America, and being named one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People.
Despite the global recognition, Dr. Mona remains deeply committed to Flint, a city she has called home for 20 years. Hanna-Attisha’s book, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” was published in June and tells the story of the Flint water crisis.
We spoke with Dr. Mona about where things stand in Flint right now.
Q: How would you describe the situation in Flint today relative to when you discovered lead in children’s blood?
A: So much has changed and there are so many amazing things that have happened since August of 2015. But so much hasn’t changed. I never would have thought by now we’d still be on bottled water; I would have thought we’d be over the immediate water issue. So that’s really hampering our recovery, because we’re still in everyday-crisis mode. The water is so much better, but because of the infrastructure work we’re doing—which is awesome, and we’re doing it faster than any other city—that pipe work is the reason people still have to take precautions. It’s a good reason, but it’s still hard for people. There are affordability issues and also access issues. We shouldn’t have to pay for water for decades. We’re still in crisis; we’re still in a public health emergency. So that hasn’t changed.
But to get to the hope, we’re doing stuff in Flint that isn’t being done anywhere in the country. We should be proud of that. Flint is leading the way. Flint is a place of loyal and resilient people who have said, “We’re going to change this narrative.” They’re why I fell in love with the city when I came here for medical school 20 years ago. We have 10 clinics that provide books to children, near-universal preschool, mobile grocery stores, Medicaid expansion, mental health care. And then my work that’s near and dear to my heart is the registry—www.Flintregistry.org is a way for us to get people connected and recover from this crisis.
Q: What are the community’s most urgent needs?
A: I think the most urgent thing is there needs to be a rebuilding of trust. And when you cut bottled water, that doesn’t do much to build trust. Those issues of fear and betrayal and anger and anxiety are real. Just being stressed about water leads to disease. It’s a concept of toxic stress. It’s everything we already have—the poverty, the lack of nutrition and the violence and the lack of a safe place to play. The water crisis is another piece of toxic stress and trauma on a community already dealing with so much trauma.
Q: Are there resources you think residents should be more aware of?
A: Number 1 is the registry [Flintregistry.org]. But if I can think of the most underutilized resource, it’s the Lead Safe Home program. The state of Michigan got $25 million a year for the next five years, and it allows us to do what we should be doing, which is to check the home environment for lead. Normally that’s not done unless a child tests positive for lead, which is totally backward. Michigan got this tremendous grant to do primary prevention. You can sign up at Michigan.gov/leadsafe and they will inspect your house and if you have lead, they will fix it for free. It’s amazing and no other state has it. People have to get signed up for it. We have a campaign to become a lead-free city in four years.