As the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., continues to play out, a lot of people are still wondering; how could something like this go on for so long without anyone knowing?
While the government denies any previous knowledge, there is at least one person who’s been trying to warn people about the consequences of corrosive water for almost a year now: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.
The daughter of Iraqi immigrants, Dr. Hanna-Attisha emigrated to Royal Oak, Mich. from the United Kingdom. She attended the University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree, before heading to Michigan State for medical school and then returning to her alma mater for a Masters in Public Health.
Even when confronted with her credentials, she faced a smear-campaign by the state of Michigan when she first came forward with her horrific findings about the water in Flint.
Though they tried their hardest to discredit her, the state was finally forced to admit that Dr. Hanna-Attisha was correct, and eventually declared a state of emergency in the city, leading to the national coverage of the crisis we’re seeing today.
We had the privilege of talking to her about her role as a whistleblower in the Flint water scandal. Though it obviously took a remarkable amount of resilience and courage to confront so many hostile institutions at a potentially personal cost, throughout the entire interview, she holds firm about one thing; she doesn’t consider herself anything special and maintains that she was “just doing my job.”
MuslimGirl: Could you walk us through the timeline of what happened?
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: In late August, a friend of mine was over for dinner and she happens to be a water expert — she used to work at the [Environmental Protection Agency]. And she mentioned she’d heard about the Flint water dispute, and that there was corrosion in the water, and that there was probably going to be lead in the water, and asked, “Have you looked at kids’ blood levels?”
That’s when I really got started, because pediatricians hearing about the possibility of lead anywhere, we get really concerned.
So I started to see if I could get the data on kids’ blood lead levels from the state, or from the county, and I couldn’t. But that’s kind of what got me started on doing research on projects to see if that lead in the water was getting in the bodies of kids.
That happened in early September — it was the quickest research project I’ve ever done, because of the sense of urgency to really see, is there lead getting into kids? Because lead is bad; we know lead is a neurotoxin and causes these long problems, and because the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), everybody tells us that there’s no safe level of lead.
What we found was our results showed a significant increase; the lead levels of kids doubled. The number of kids with lead poisoning doubled in the city in that time period, and in some neighborhoods it actually tripled. So we shared our information at a press conference with the greater medical community of concerned people, we shared our research findings, my research findings at the press conference, and then we were attacked by the state.
What was the backlash like?
The state told us that we were wrong, that I was “unfortunate,” that their data didn’t line up with our data, and it continued, this almost a year-and-a-half story from the state saying there was nothing wrong with the water, even though the religious leaders, the water experts, the activists, everyone was saying there was a problem with the water — but they didn’t believe anybody.
So they denied our medical results for about a good week and a half, and then they re-looked at our data and said, “Uh-oh, we do have a problem.” And then a few weeks later, less than a month later, we switched back to the Detroit water, which was where we were getting our water from before, but because of the damage to the infrastructure, because of the corrosive water that was not treated with corrosion control, it obviously was still causing damage to the kids.
These kids did nothing wrong. Just because they lived in a poor city that was bankrupt — and didn’t treat its water properly, so we owe it to these kids now to really invest in them so that they have a bright future ahead of them.
You can’t really go back from that kind of lead poisoning, can you?
Yeah, you can’t reverse it. And you don’t see the symptoms of lead poisoning right away, it’s something you see in years and decades to come — so now we are actively working on throwing everything of our resources at these kids. We don’t usually see the impact of lead for about three to five years, when kids are having problems in school, having problems focusing and learning, and that’s when we start seeing issues.
So that’s why I feel we’re in a state of emergency. Because these kids did nothing wrong. Just because they lived in a poor city that was bankrupt — and didn’t treat its water properly, so we owe it to these kids now to really invest in them so that they have a bright future ahead of them.
Everybody was exposed, there are about 99,000 people that live in the city of Flint and lead affects everybody, but we were told about the very young, and the zero to six age group, and there’s about 9,000 kids in that age group.
And you know, some kids will be fine. Not every kid is going to have every problem, but we need to make sure that we lessen the impact of this with interventions that help all children with developmental issues, even if they’re the victims of lead.
Was there ever a time you thought you might just give up or were you just bound and determined to get this message out?
You know, it’s my job. As a pediatrician, it’s your job to be an advocate for children. It’s your job to speak for them because they don’t have voices, they can’t vote, they can’t tell you what’s best for them — but most importantly, it’s my job in a community that’s under-served. So, our population is rattled with poverty and unemployment and all these issues and a predominantly minority community, so it is even more my job to be their voices in these situations.
As you were saying, the people in Flint are mostly a low-income, minority-heavy community — not your typical middle-class white community. What were the struggles you faced as a minority advocating for a marginalized community against a very white, very privileged institution?
I wouldn’t say that I faced any struggles because of being a minority myself. I don’t think that really played a role, but it did enable me to empathize even more with the population. I wasn’t even born in the States. We came here and my parents couldn’t even afford half a gallon of milk. So I think that’s always been one of the drives of why I want to work in the middle of communities, because of the struggles that my family went through.
Especially as an immigrant yourself, how do you feel about the current campaign rhetoric regarding Muslims and immigration?
It’s really troubling now. I’ve said multiple times, if Donald Trump was the president, I probably wouldn’t be here. It’s unprecedented to have such hate and such accepted hate, and when you saw the last rally they had when they removed a Muslim woman — where do we live? Is this how we want to raise our children? So it’s very concerning to see where he stands as a whole.
And it’s even scarier to witness not just what he’s saying, but how many people are following him.
Exactly! That’s the key — he can say whatever he wants, but the fact that he has, like, a 40 percent approval rating, that’s what’s frightening; that means people actually agree with him!
Where do you get your courage to face up to this kind of rhetoric and all these institutions?
I think it’s my innate responsibility, it’s my professional responsibility. I’ve always tried to fight for the underdog, and that comes from my parents. It comes from how I was raised; they came from Iraq, where people were being persecuted, and they lived in fear. And they wanted to come and live for the “American Dream” and live in freedom. So I was prepared for the injustices that can occur and I think you become stronger because of them.
Do you, yourself, practice any religion?
Not really; we’re Chaldean, which is Iraqi Christian, but I identify myself as just Iraqi American. I was very much raised Arab; I speak Arabic, we eat Arabic food, but we don’t really practice anything. I really believe in all religions — I believe there’s beauty in all religions, and I can’t say one is better than the other.
So, maybe I would say I’m a Unitarian? But everyone is beautiful and everybody has value, so I respect everybody. So religion doesn’t necessarily guide what I do — I just think that’s being a good human being.
Do you have advice for other women who may be in situations like yours where they might have to face institutions that try to silence them?
Yeah! Do not give up. Trust your gut. Trust your instincts. Find your allies — this happened because I had a lot of people who had my back. That’s the power of a network. The people who I had met over the years came and supported me. But don’t give up.
We knew our data was right, we knew the numbers didn’t lie, even when the state questioned us, we knew we were right. So stand your ground and continue to fight — continue to fight for the oppressed. It’s not about us. This world is not about us. It’s what you can do for others.
Have you ever felt marginalized?
Yeah, you know, I went to high school when the Persian Gulf War started, and there were definitely people who were like, “Oh you’re Arabic, you’re this, you’re that,” but I’ve always been resilient and stubborn and strong, so I don’t think it’s really impacted me.
And I think that was a different time; I think now it’s a lot harder for minorities, especially with such acceptable hate rhetoric. I guess I was raised with maybe too much self-esteem, so I know that I know what I know and if I’m being insulted, I realize that I’m better than that.
That [self-esteem] seems like it’s definitely been a source of strength that’s followed you throughout your life.
Definitely, and obviously, growing up in Michigan, we had such a large Arab and Middle Eastern population, so I never really felt that I was that different from others.
Flint is neither the first, nor unfortunately the last, place that something like this could happen, so what would you say to the people in other communities that might be going through the same thing when it comes to raising awareness and overall accountability?
Definitely build your network. Keep talking. Engage your legislators — our state legislators were champions here, our state rep, our state senator, our U.S. rep — I just finished a meeting with our U.S. senator. So, just don’t give up. Build. Collaborate. This was a partnership.
Somebody here did a story — it was the investigative journalists, the moms, the water researchers. Sometimes we say to ourselves, like “I’m only going to hang out with the same professional people,” or, “I’m only gonna hang out with pediatricians, I’m only gonna hang out reporters,” or whatever. You have to broaden your collaborative.
Dr. Marc Edwards — who was a researcher from Virginia Tech — I’ve never met another person who wasn’t a pediatrician who cared so much about children. So, you surprisingly will find a lot of people who have commonalities with you.
What’s next for you? Where do you go from here?
I’m retiring! Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital, we just created something called the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, which I am now directing. So, this is what’s next — it’s going to help us build our research and help our long-term monitoring of it, and the implementation and advocacy of the interventions for children.
So this is going to be my work — my work is going to be making sure these kids have a bright future ahead of them.
If anyone wants to help, we have a fund at flintkids.org. Get involved in college, join every group, have fun — seriously, have fun — but you never know. Everyone wants to change the world and do good and it will land in your lap one day.
Written By Sumaia Masoom.