In early December, I was presented with the opportunity to interview Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and public health advocate who exposed the Flint water crisis by releasing her research on high lead levels in the city’s water. Over the course of 20 minutes, Dr. Mona and I talk about her book, her thought process when speaking out against the government’s irresponsible actions, the parts of her childhood which built her character, and her work to help kids affected by the crisis.
Interviewer: You are very well-known for bringing your skills as a scientist and pediatrician, and combining it with your passion for activism. And this quality was first nationally recognized when, on September 24, 2015, you went to a press conference and revealed that the City of Flint changing its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River had caused the blood lead levels of Flint kids to double. At this press conference, you urged the people of Flint, specifically children, to stop drinking the contaminated water and in less than a month, the government had switched back to using Lake Huron as the water source. Did you predict what kind of impact your message might create and how much opposition and criticism you would receive?
Dr. Mona: No, I had no idea what was going to happen after I shared that research, but I knew that the research had to be shared right away. Every day, every hour, every minute that went by, kids who were drinking this water were in harm’s way so there was no choice other than to go forward, share this research, and demand action. In that moment, I wasn’t really thinking about what was going to happen next, I was thinking more about what needed to happen now. It was hard to make any predictions and when I shared that research, as a scientist and pediatrician, I thought that I was just sharing science, numbers and facts and how anyone could think these numbers and facts were wrong. So I was not prepared for the backlash and attack on science and my credibility as a scientist.
Interviewer: In one of my previous episodes, on the Flint water crisis, I talk about how you created the organization, The Flint Registry. Could you please tell us more about your organization, how it began, what all you have done, and where you are now?
Dr. Mona: So we knew from the moment that the Flint crisis happened that we had to do something. I wish as a doctor, I could have written a prescription to take away what happened, like a magic pill that can reverse the exposure, lying, betrayal, and lost trust, but there’s not a magic pill for that. So we knew we had to put into place, working with so many partners in the community, an infrastructure to support the people of Flint. And that’s what the Flint Registry is all about; we’re a designated public health authority supported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which means our work is to improve health and we are trying to find everybody that was exposed to the crisis after which we do a long survey to see how the patients are doing and based on that, we connect them to all these awesome things that we know improve health like access to a doctor or mental healthcare or nutrition services or home inspection to get rid of more lead. So the Flint Registry is about finding folks who are exposed, but most importantly, getting them connected to services to improve their public health.
Interviewer: And, I think the government thought that now that the water source was switched back, everything would be fine, but they didn’t realize the lifelong impacts the lead actually caused in the body.
Dr. Mona: Yeah, that’s a really important point that a lot of people don’t understand. When you’re exposed to something like lead, but really any kind of trauma or crisis, you don’t have symptoms right away. Maybe a person could seem fine right now, but in the next 5, 10, 20 or 30 years or more, or even in the next generation, is when you can see the manifestations of those kinds of exposures. That’s why it’s really important to stay vigilant, to keep our eyes open, to keep supporting people, and to be proactive and preventive, and if we do that, maybe we won’t see as many problems.
Interviewer: As you bring up in your book, remedies are important but prevention is more important than that. How do we ensure that another Flint situation doesn’t happen elsewhere?
Dr. Mona: Well that is a wonderful and timely question. Just a few weeks ago, the National Infrastructure Bill passed. So this was a Bipartisan Bill to invest in roads and bridges and pipes. For a long time, we’ve been trying to make sure there’s no more Flints, and one way to do that is by passing stronger water laws and investments, but one of those ways is making sure that we get the lead out of our plumbing. And this National Infrastructure Bill actually includes the removal of lead from pipes. It’s not all the money, but it’s a lot of money; it’s the biggest federal investment in lead and water in the whole country. I got the chance to testify before Congress a couple months ago about this water infrastructure bill, I shared the Flint story, and I made it clear that we don’t want any more water crises to happen and so many have happened since Flint. And it is so important to prevent things and invest before we have problems so the way that we can prevent this is by removing these lead pipes and passing the Infrastructure Bill. It really is an awesome time because a lot of positive things are happening to protect kids.
Interviewer: As the Flint Water Crisis showed, experience is always more important than expectations and many current elected officials don’t have much experience with the medical field during this COVID pandemic. If you were in a position in which you could make policy decisions, what would you have done differently with handling COVID-19 as a person who has medical experience?
Dr. Mona: It’s not just medical experience, it’s also health experience. There’s folks that go on to be doctors, but there’s folks that also have training in public health which is how you handle public health crises and figure out how health issues impact the population. Doctors are really trained to take care of one patient at a time. Whereas, those in public health are trained to protect populations. So it’s both of those expertises that have been lacking in policy for a long time and they were especially lacking in our COVID-19 response. So if I was in charge, I would have listened to the scientists very early, taken their recommendations, and made sure that our decisions were really driven by what science told us was the best thing to do. So many lessons of Flint are the same lessons of the pandemic. In Flint, we learned that we need a good government that values public health and that we can’t keep taking care of problems after they happen, we have to focus on making sure they don’t happen. In the pandemic, that’s about addressing disparities and inequities and making sure people are healthy and have the support they need before they’re exposed to crises. And that’s not just addressing things like health and having a doctor, but people who are most impacted by the pandemic were frontline workers who couldn’t take time off from work, living on a very low minimum wage, and supporting their families. All of these things made the pandemic worse because we’re not investing in keeping people healthy. So there’s a lot of things that could have been done very early on and I think right now, in terms of the pandemic because it’s not over, the most important thing is how we listen to and respect science. Right now in the pandemic, what’s killing people is misinformation and lies that are being spread and they’re not listening to science and what doctors are saying. Figuring out how we combat the virus of misinformation and elevate the voices of those in science and healthcare and make sure that facts are at the frontline is important.
Interviewer: Did you see any similarities between the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s response to the lead in Flint’s water?
Dr. Mona: There were a lot of parallels. In the very beginning of the pandemic, scientists were being silenced and dismissed, scientific agencies were being politicized, and the agencies weren’t allowed to do what they wanted so there were very similar things. And, the pandemic was also worse because of this long-standing failure to invest in infrastructure; not just things like pipes, but the infrastructure of what keeps people healthy. In Flint, we had a failure of infrastructure with our pipes, but also with the capacity of our health departments and that’s kind of the same in the pandemic. Our public health infrastructure and state/national health departments have been underfunded and under researched for a really long time; we always cut their budgets, but when you cut the funding to the folks who are supposed to keep us healthy, they’re not able to respond as quickly when we have problems like a water crisis or a pandemic.
Interviewer: The best part of your book, What The Eyes Don’t See, is that it’s both an autobiography that also gives this background information and ‘behind-the-scenes’ perspective of the crisis in Flint. For example, in your book, you talk about how your parents are Iraqi immigrants and how that brought these new perspectives on situations in your life. What was the most important quality or lesson about life that your parents taught you?
Dr. Mona: My book is weird, it’s about Flint and being in the middle of the crisis, but it’s also about me, where I came from, and my family roots. I didn’t think I was going to write about that, but when I started to write the book, I realized that I can’t really tell you what I did in Flint and why I became a scientist and why I spoke up without telling you who I was and my family history and our immigrant story that makes me see the world a different way, it gives me this perspective of being so everyday-grateful to be in this country, which is the story of so many immigrants, but it also gives me another ‘wide-eyes-open’ look of injustices. My parents raised me with the recognition that there’s bad things happening to vulnerable people and that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you have a role to play to prevent those bad things. So, it’s almost as if I have a heightened antenna for injustice that was instilled in me as a kid. That immigrant story is important and I never thought when I was writing this book or sharing the Flint story that we would also be at a point in our country where we’re thinking about “What is the contribution of immigrants?”, “We should build walls”, or “We should have travel bans” and all these different things, and I think including that in my story is really important because it showed that there are immigrants all over this country that are doing good stuff and that this country was built on immigrants doing really great stuff and we have to remember the amazing contribution of immigrants.
Interviewer: In your book, you say “resilience isn’t something that you have or don’t have. It’s something that you learn.” Was there a specific situation in your life that helped teach you resilience?
Dr. Mona: It really is that immigrant perspective: coming here when I was 4, learning a new culture in a new country, trying to get acclimated, but also being very welcomed where my diversity was celebrated. The resilience of growing up with my parents who couldn’t see their parents or family, living in a state of oppression from all the bad things that were going on back home, and all those lessons of hardship were instilled in me through which I learned the need to be resilient, grateful, and give back. That immigrant perspective is what really taught me the most about resilience.
Interviewer: In your book, you talk about how you figured out that, in October 2014, just 6 months after the water source had been switched, General Motors sent a complaint to the government that the lead in the water was causing corrosion in their engine parts. Could you please share your thought process when you heard about the government granting this request and allowing GM to go back to using water from Lake Huron?
Dr. Mona: I’m glad you pointed that out because even when I hear it today, I think to myself, “Oh my gosh!” Our drinking water in Flint was being used in a car plant because General Motors was born in Flint and that’s where cars were first made, and they noticed that this water was eating up and corroding the car engine parts. They asked to go back to Great Lakes water and they were allowed while the people of Flint throughout this time were told to relax, but this water was corroding car parts. That’s mind-boggling; how could that be ok? That’s when the crisis should have stopped. There’s many places where it should have stopped, but it definitely should’ve stopped when there was recognition of what the water was doing to car parts. If it was corroding car parts, then it’s probably also corroding pipes and causing a lot of other damage.
Interviewer: Your book shows a wide array of problems with the medical system in the U.S., from providing limited resources to some communities to not holding the government accountable for their mistakes. In your opinion, what is the biggest lesson we can learn from Flint’s water crisis?
Dr. Mona: I think the biggest lesson we can learn is that we can make a difference. The story of Flint is a story of a crime, right? It’s a crime committed against some of the most vulnerable people in the country. But, the reason I wrote the book and the reason I’m here with you today is to tell you that despite this badness, a group of people who said ‘no, we can do better for our kids’. They came together and they formed a team of people who don’t usually work together like doctors and engineers and moms and activists and pastors and they fought back and won. So that’s the story that I want people to go away with when they hear Flint, not the story of this crazy water crisis, brown water, and the government being bad, but a story of how people resisted and did better on behalf of children and have since created a community of hope that has had ripple effects across the country like the infrastructure bill, to make sure these kinds of things don’t happen again.
Interviewer: When children like me hear someone talk about The Flint Water Crisis, the first name that pops into our minds is Dr. Mona, the hero and activist who helped the kids in Flint. As you show in your profession as a pediatrician, and in your book, you love working with children. What advice do you have to kids like me who are looking for opportunities to make a difference in the world?
Dr. Mona: Kids are amazing, you guys give me inspiration and hope. If you look at all the movements that are happening right now in the world, they are being led by young people: the gun violence movement, the climate change movement, Black Lives Matter. You are opening your eyes to all these injustices and saying that we can do better. So keep using your voice, keep being loud, keep doing exactly what you’re doing and shine light on all these different stories and once again, you give me inspiration and hope.