Pediatrician Who Exposed Flint Water Crisis Says All Communities At Risk

Feb 13, 2017

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will speak at Illinois Wesleyan on Wednesday.
Credit Michigan State University

It all began over a glass of wine at dinner. A friend of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told the Flint, Michigan pediatrician that she suspected there was something fundamentally wrong with that city's drinking water. 

As a cost-cutting measure, the city had stopped using Lake Huron for its water supply in 2014. Instead it began drawing water from the polluted Flint River. 

Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Children's  Hospital, knew of children who had been treated for rashes after bathing in the water. She raised her concerns with state health and environmental officials. They assured her the drinking water was fine. It wasn't.

"When a pediatrician hears the world lead, it's a call to action, it's something you don't mess around. It's a potent, irreversible neuro-toxin," she said.

Hanna-Attisha is credited with exposing the Flint water crisis long before the state or federal environmental officials stepped in. She will talk about her experience Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Illinois Wesleyan University's Presser Hall. The lecture in Westbrook Auditorium is open to the public as part of the university's Founders Day Convocation. 

Hanna-Attisha collected data on the lead levels of children treated in her department at Hurley. She quickly learned that the lead levels in her patients had doubled since the city switched its water supply.

"Something fundamental was missing in this water," Hanna-Attisha said in an interview on GLT's "Sound Ideas." 

"They did not add corrosion control , which is an absolute no-brainer in the water world, it's like a medicine that goes into the water treatment that prevents the pipes from corroding and getting into the drinking water because there is lead in all of our plumbing."

At first, Hanna-Attisha's research was attacked by city and state officials. 

"I was called an unfortunate researcher, that I was causing mass hysteria,"  she said, even though residents had complained to city and state officials for months about the brown, smelly water coming out of their taps. A report by a federal Environmental Protection Agency scientist was also dismissed.

As many as 10,000 children in Flint were affected by lead poisoning, which can result in a loss of cognition skills.

There are currently 300 lawsuits against the state.  Gov. Rick Snyder was forced to apologize to the people of Flint. Federal EPA officials were called before Congress, and 12 individuals have been criminally charged in connection with the crisis.

"Nobody wakes up and says, today I'm going to poison a population. Why people weren't doing their job I have no idea," Hanna-Attisha said.

The experience has made her skeptical about the water supplies in every city.

"I was naive to start. I assumed the water that comes out of my tap is safe. I no longer believe that in Flint or anywhere else in this country," Hanna-Attisha said.

Water officials in Bloomington and Normal have said the water supplies in both cities are routinely tested for lead levels and so far meet federal standards. However, those tests only cover water that goes through municipal pipes.

Some homes in the Twin Cities still have lead water pipes that lead into residences from the public system. Lead pipes were not prohibited until 1986. It is the responsibility of homeowners to insure their residential pipes aren't leaking lead.  

Hanna-Attisha said she believes federal regulations to insure safe drinking water are not stringent enough. The Trump administration has vowed to cut regulations for clean air and water in the coming  months.

"There is lead in all of our plumbing -- it was used in service lines and it wasn't restricted until 1986 -- and there is lead in brass faucets that weren't restricted until 2014," Hanna-Attisha said. "So until we can have massive investment in getting the lead out, we need to educate our families on how to protect themselves," she said.

All residents, she added, should take a few simple precautions such as running tap water for a minute before drinking it, using lead water filters at home, and refraining from using hot water directly from the tap for cooking, since lead leaks more quickly into warm water.

There have been some changes as a result of the Flint crisis, which led to the discovery of lead contamination in dozens of other communities across the nation. Congress passed the Environmental Protection Notification Bill which requires the EPA to take action immediately if it learns of a problem and make that information public.

Hanna-Attisha, 39, is an Iraqi-American  whose first language was Arabic. Her parents fled Iraq as refugees in 1980. She was born in the United Kingdom and came to this country at the age of four. Time magazine listed her last year as one of the 100 most influential women in America.

Asked about the Trump administration's plan to ban refugees from Iraq and six other Middle Eastern countries, Hanna-Attisha said, "My parents came for that American dream and I was every day grateful to live that American dream and that has followed me and led me to a career in service."

If such a ban were in place in 1980, she added, "I would not be here. So it is mind-boggling and unfortunate to think about what we are losing as a nation, the potential in our future. Are we are losing the next kid who is going to invent a cure for cancer, or the next kid who is going to solve our economic issues, or the create the next big start up?  ... When I came to this country I was celebrated, supported, and not victimized."

Although the effects of lead poisoning can't be reversed, they can be mitigated, Hanna-Attisha said. She spends much of her time now on those efforts.  

"We are trying to wrap our kids around every evidence-based intervention to mitigate the impact of their exposure and promote their development. So we are investing in home visits, maternal- infant support programs, early education, nutrition, access to doctors and developmental screening. All of these things have been put in place so we don't see the consequences of lead." 

"The clock is ticking," she added.