A Progress Report From the Doctor Who Exposed the Crisis in Flint, One Year Later

By Yessenia Funes Dec 14, 2016

On December 14, 2015, the mayor of Flint, Michigan declared a state of emergency. It had taken more than a year for the municipal government to acknowledge the presence of high, dangerous levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. Flint had not gone public with this information until it was forced to—by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

A local pediatrician, Hanna-Attisha had conducted independent research on children’s blood lead levels after a friend who worked in water quality tipped her off to possible lead poisoning. She released her research on September 24, 2015, and it showed that Flint children’s blood levels doubled—and tripled in some areas—after the city switched its drinking water source. The state was not happy with Hanna-Attisha’s announcement: They dismissed her research, discrediting her in the process. The EPA had sufficient information to declare its own emergency order as early as June 2015, meaning Hanna-Attisha’s findings were likely not a surprise for governmental officials.

A week later, the city and state had to acknowledge that the doctor was right. It is now more than two years since the water crisis began, yet residents still can’t drink from their faucet. They must rely on bottled or filtered water for cooking, bathing and cleaning—essentially all household tasks. The city still has 29,000 water lines to replace, but the Senate did pass a bill late Dec. 9 that allotted Flint a much-needed $170 million. 

Colorlines spoke with Hanna-Attisha about how she thinks the city is doing a year after it was forced to take action.

How have things changed since Mayor Karen Weaver issued the state of emergency nearly a year ago?

Some things have really improved, and some things haven’t really changed that much. We still have water that we cannot drink. We are in the third year of this water crisis, and the water that comes out of the tap cannot be consumed without a filter. So that hasn’t changed.

{{pullquote:1:left}}The water has gotten better. The water testing appears to be improving. There’s been some line replacements, but in the middle of the Great Lakes in 2016, we have a clearly demarcated population of people who are predominantly poor and minority that have yet to have access to clean drinking water. That has not changed.

My efforts very much focus around the children and mitigating the impacts of this on them. We’ve been able to get Medicaid expansion for some of our kids, which is amazing. We have universal preschool. We have incredible investments in early literacy. We have new and increased home visiting programs and investments in breastfeeding initiatives. We have economic development: new job opportunities in different sectors. So those are some of the good things that have happened, but I’m also very cautiously optimistic because a lot of these things are state, federal or grant-funded for maybe one or two years—and this is definitely not a one- or two-year problem. This is something we need to be working on and investing in for decades to come.

How are the children doing? 

My daily work is a pediatrician, so, you know, one little hand in my hand. This last year, I’ve stepped back a lot and shifted to really holding the hands of an entire population of children. {{pullquote}}However, these are real kids. These are beautiful, smart, strong kids who are no different than my kids or your kids.{{/pullquote}} And they, by no fault of their own, were betrayed by government, by every agency that was supposed to protect them. And they drank this water when they were told it was safe—and it was contaminated.

So our kids have really been through the ringer. There’s significant trauma in the community. Think of it like PTSD for the whole community. These families have a lot guilt that they gave their kids this water. They’re very anxious, and our kids are anxious, too, about what’s going to happen to them because there are so many unknowns. And they watch TV; they’re on the Internet. They hear words like “brain damage,” and they hear “irreversible neurotoxin,” so we’re very much fighting that stigma.

What has the past year been like professionally for you?

There have been silver linings from what happened in Flint. The nation is now talking about infrastructure, water quality, lead elimination and childhood poverty, so it’s provided me with an opportunity to use this microphone to advocate for kids in Flint, our state and, really, the whole nation.

Because of Flint, the state just convened the statewide lead elimination committee looking at the entire state, all sources of lead and what we can do to protect children. Last Monday, there was a huge conference called the National Summit to End Lead Poisoning, first of its kind, focused on the entire nation and children’s exposure to lead and [solutions].{{pullquote:2:right}}

What I’m doing now is trying to prevent future Flints, so that no other community—no other child—has to go through what we went through, and to make regulations, laws, policies, community awareness and education so more children are protected. 

What do you think will happen in 2017?

I think a lot of our real work in Flint is very much beginning. As a pediatrician, I think our voices are especially important to protect children. We have a presidential administration coming in that wants to weaken regulations and the ones that were already on the books [did not stop Flint from happening] in regards to the EPA.

So here’s somebody who wants to weaken regulations and an administration that doesn’t believe in science, climate change or immunizations. It is an administration that wants to defund or cut public health agencies like the EPA, CDC, and potentially get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which has given us 20 million people on health insurance. That hits home to Flint because we just expanded Medicaid for Flint kids. So we are cautious.

We recognize that, in 2017, we’re going to have to do a lot of advocacy to not only maintain what we have in place, but to continue to strengthen it—so if ever our work was important, I think it’s most important now. And that’s really for pediatricians everywhere. I feel like I need to wrap my kids and protect them from what may happen. {{pullquote}}If all those things that Donald Trump wants to do happen, with loosening regulations and public health agencies, we will see many, many more Flints.{{/pullquote}} We have to learn our lesson. We have to learn from what we are still going through. We cannot afford more Flints.