On this episode of The Women, host Rose Reid sits down with pediatrician and water warrior Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She lives and works in Flint, Michigan, and one day in 2015, she realized the danger Flint’s children were in due to the corrosive water residents were drinking from the Flint River. Flint government said the water was fine, but Mona spent six weeks examining the lead levels in children’s blood samples, proving that the water was harmful. She called national attention to the problem by holding a press conference and informing the media of the situation. Flint government officials tried degrading her integrity and mocking her findings, but she persisted. Now, Flint is working on a huge infrastructure project to replace their lead pipes, and Mona has seen the lead levels in Flint’s children’s blood decrease. Rose gets the full story on how Mona realized what was going on, how she dealt with the fallout, and the scandal she inadvertently uncovered.
Flint originally got all its water from the Great Lake Huron, but in 2014, officials switched their water source to the Flint River, which wasn’t properly treated. “A year later, the Flint water crisis made national headlines,” Rose tells us, “conjuring images of residents holding water jugs filled with yellowed and browning water.” Mona was already a practicing pediatrician in the area, and though “residents began to complain to their city and state officials that the water was yellow and brown and some families noticed rashes or hair loss after a bath,” they were always reassured that “the water was fine.” But Mona had a friend named Elin Warren-Betanzo, a water engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency, who clued her in: “She said, ‘It’s not being treated properly. It’s missing an ingredient called corrosion control,’” Mona remembers. “‘Without corrosion control, there’s going to be lead in the water.’” Immediately the problem was clear to Mona. “Lead...impacts the core of what it means to be you, impacting cognition, dropping IQ levels, behavior, development, attention problems, focusing issues. It's even been linked to things like criminality,” she tells Rose, pointing out that when lead was removed from paint, it actually raised the IQ of the entire country. “Because of the incredible science, especially over the last few decades, we have gotten to the point of recognizing that there is no safe level of lead.”
Mona spent six weeks looking at the blood lead levels of Flint’s children, and presented her findings at a press conference. “Then...every arm of the state began to attack me, began to attack the science, and my credibility. They said that my numbers were wrong, that my numbers weren't consistent with their numbers...I began to second guess myself,” she admits. But she kept fighting anyway, and it turned out, the city had a lot of reasons to try to undermine her: it was discovered that General Motors “noticed that engine parts were corroding because of our drinking water. They were allowed to create another bypass route to go back to Great Lakes water and the people of Flint were literally told to relax, that everything was okay. This all happened a full year prior to my work." It also came out that officials “had actually looked at these levels the previous summer. They'd actually seen a spike and that was really kind of buried and covered up.”
Thanks to Mona’s efforts, Flint’s new mayor declared a state of emergency, and investigations were opened. “By and large point most of the blame to the Office of Drinking Water at the State level,” Mona says, “but also very clearly recognizing that this was a form of environmental injustice, that the race and the demographics of the population were part of what happened.” The city has returned to using Great Lake Huron water, but Flint’s water pipes have to be replaced, a huge infrastructure project. Thankfully, a lot of federal and community support is making that happen. “Flint literally lost democracy,” Mona points out. “We had no accountable local elected officials, yet...our state senator, our state representative, our US congressional delegation, when they found out what was going on, they never stopped fighting for Flint...I hope that the story shares the power of good government and the importance of democracy.”
Learn more about Mona’s life growing up, how she got a law passed when she was only 14, and her struggles with Flint, on this inspiring episode of The Women.
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