Lunch with the Woman Who Saved Flint, Michigan's Children
We had the pleasure and honor to attend a program at City Club on Friday, June 22, entitled “Science as a Social Change: the Woman who saved Flint’s Children.” The aforementioned woman was our presenter, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Detroit-raised pediatrician and author of What The Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. We are very proud to report that this important event was sponsored by Margaret W. Wong & Associates, LLC as part of the Margaret W. Wong Forum on Foreign-Born Individuals of Distinction series. We were also glad that ten of our colleagues joined us for this event.
Citing as an introduction from the program booklet about this event: “A few years ago, the country was watching in horror as the national media descended on Flint, Michigan. A switch in drinking water sources—from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River—had caused nearly 100,000 residents to be exposed to dangerous amounts of lead. Those most affected were children whose lead blood levels doubled or, in some cases, tripled after the switch was made, resulting in developmental and behavioral problems.”
This important research was conducted by Dr. Hanna-Attisha, a first-generation Iraqi immigrant and Detroit-raised pediatrician. The focus and importance of her research paved the way for government officials in Flint to acknowledge the extent of this water crisis, resulting in $100 million in federal and $250 million in state funding to clean the water and combat its negative effects. On a personal level, Dr. Hanna-Attisha remains committed to ensuring the health of Flint’s children as the Director of Pediatric Public Health Initiative and founder of the Flint Child Health and Development Fund.
Due to her persistent and relentless efforts, Dr. Hanna-Attisha has received countless awards including being the co-recipient of the first MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award for embodying the idea that “science and scholarship are as powerful tools for social change as art and protest.” Dr. Hanna-Attisha did her research on this failing infrastructure and the cause of this crisis, which is explained in her book. Dr. Hanna-Attisha added, “It is a change for all of us to open our eyes and recognize that what happened in Flint was a public health disaster—what really happened was when the very people who are supposed to keep our children safe, care more about making money. What really happened in Flint speaks of the deeper crisis; environmental injustices that took place in a predominantly minority community.” They saw the abandonment of civic responsibility to care and provide services—“Who are we as a society if we do not care about our children? Flint is a reminder for all of us that we are intimately connected to our environment.”
Dr. Hanna-Attisha referenced John Snow, a rebel in 19th century in London. He was a jack of all trades and used science to speak truth and power. The purpose of science is to improve and serve our communities; to positively impact vital problems. Because of her work, many lives were saved. Snow showed that it was not stinky air, but contaminated water that was the cause of cholera; 62% of deaths from the population back then were helpless children.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha also told us about her first experience with the situation in Flint: “It started in the Summer of 2015 when a friend came over for a barbecue. She was a drinking water expert who had formerly worked at EPA, and she saw a memo with red flags about Flint water. Yet, the state said everything was fine in the reports. Dr. Hanna-Attisha did not believe anything bad could happen to the water. Michigan is surrounded by water with the Great Lakes, the best source of fresh water. She thought we have laws and regulations; “How can our water not be okay,” she contended.
It became very clear to Dr. Hanna-Attisha that Flint was not treating their water properly with corrosion control; without corrosion control there will be lead in the water. When we hear the word “lead,” we know it is “a form of environmental injustice and environmental racism, a potent irreversible neurotoxin that impacts every organ system." There is no safe level of lead when detected in children. She realized they needed to detect this before it got to children. Further, Flint was in the state of bankruptcy and found the water was 19x more corrosive coming from the Flint River than the Great Lakes. However, a year before the problem was detected, General Motors stopped using the water in Flint because it was corroding the engine parts. It was believed this racial crisis would not have happened if Flint was in a wealthy area of Michigan. Flint was also famous for the Auto Sit Down Strikes—UAW saw the Birth of Middle Class in America called the Grand Bargain.
Immigrants came to Flint for great paying jobs. “What was happening in the water in Flint was threatening the future of our kids.” Dr. Hanna-Attisha did her research and released it before it was published because “our kids did not have time to wait.” She stood up for and fiercely defended her research and was dismissed at that point. She thought she had made a huge mistake, but then she realized that this was not about numbers, it was mainly about children. All of the numbers in her research were “a child,” the thing that enabled her to keep fighting.
Finally, the state conceded and admitted there was a problem. Damaged and corroded lead pipes were being replaced, and fixtures were also leaking lead in schools and had not been changed until 2014. Flint now has public health programs in an area that had a 60% poverty rate, and now they are “Writing Prescriptions for Hope.” They have a program in Flint where every child gets a book mailed to them every month from the ages of 0-5 years old. She states, “Our recovery is bringing back jobs and bringing back 'Grand Bargains.' This man-made crisis exposed our nation to a toxin, and all of us have the power to open our eyes to fix these problems. Injustices are happening everywhere, and we need to be fighting for all children no matter where they come from.” Dr. Hanna-Attisha ended her speech by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat.”
Written by: George Koussa
Ethnic Consultant and Arabic Translator-Interpreter
Margaret W. Wong & Associates, LLC