Renowned pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke Wednesday to a sold-out Rackham Auditorium about her first-hand account of exposing the dangerous levels of lead in Flint. This is the second part of the two-day event called Environmental Justice Focus: Flint Water Crisis, co-sponsored by the School for Environment and Sustainability and Literati Bookstore.
Hanna-Attisha’s book, titled “What the Eyes Don’t See,” reviews her journey acting as a whistleblower in the Flint water crisis and how her identity as an Arab-American shaped her career as a pediatrician.
Hanna-Attisha, a University alum, began explaining her book title has two meanings: on a literal level, it represents how the effects of lead poisoning aren’t visible or immediately apparent in patients and water; figuratively, it represents how Hanna-Attisha had her own eyes closed to the Flint water crisis.
“It is about people, it is about places and it is about problems that we choose not to see,” Hanna-Attisha said. “For about a year and a half I was also very blind to what was happening in Flint. I was telling my patients that everything was okay. I was drinking the Kool-Aid — that the water was fine and that it was fine for the kids to drink. So it is about all of us being blind to the injustices that are happening all around us.”
Hanna-Attisha also underscored her identity as a first-generation Iraqi-immigrant. Her parents escaped Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s fascist regime and immigrated to the United States for their children to have a chance at living out the American dream, and Hanna-Attisha said as a result, she was acutely aware of her privilege growing up in the United States. As a child, her parents never shielded her from what was going on in Iraq, often sharing the current events of the war. That included the story of the small northern Iraqi town of Halabja, which suffered the largest chemical attack in history when Saddam Hussein poisoned over 5,000 people.
“I remember seeing, very vividly, a picture of a beautiful baby in a pink blanket lifeless on the street nestled by her father who was also lifeless,” Hanna-Attisha said. “And that was the milieu of my childhood. Knowing what people in power could do to whole populations.”
After Hanna-Attisha held the initial press conference revealing her research of the increased lead levels in the Flint water, she was denounced by the state government. While she expected some of the hurdles she had to face, she remembers how nothing could have prepared her for the critics’ denial of her research. Almost every branch of the state government said she was unnecessarily “causing near hysteria.” They called her an “unfortunate researcher” who was “splicing and dicing numbers.” She recalls the small doubt she felt in herself and in her research for a split second, until she remembered why she began this investigation in the first place.
“This is everything about the kids,” Hanna-Attisha said. “The children are my constituency … and as a pediatrician, I literally have taken an oath to protect these kids. These kids are no different than my children. One of the reasons I went into pediatrics is because it is advocacy work. It is our job to stand up, to speak up for kids.”
However, she acknowledged the work she did would not be possible without the large community that supported her. She noted it was “a village of folks who came together to fight,” made up of moms, activists, pastors, journalists and citizen scientists in a mission to figure this out.
“The other heroes in this book are our elected officials,” Hanna-Attisha said. “So state Sen. Ananich, Congressman Kildee, Sen. Stabenow and Peters, they had my back at every level of government. When, you know, the state was dismissing me, the EPA was also dismissing me, Congressman Kildee was fighting the EPA, (saying,) ‘No, she’s right, her data is right.’”
When asked about the real culprit of the Flint water crisis, she named “ideologies” as the true villains.
“This was driven by austerity, this was driven by environmental injustice and racism and discrimination,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It was driven by a lack of democracy. A disrespect for science. It was these ideologies that were the real villains in the story.”
But Hanna-Attisha keeps writing “prescriptions for hope,” not only for her patients, but also for young people nationwide. Second-year Medical student Erica Odukoya said Hanna-Attisha should be applauded for her bold decision to stay true to her values.
“What I’m really inspired by is how she was able to take her commitment to her patients as being enough of an impetus to keep moving forward and disrupt the status quo despite the costs,” Odukoya said.
Hanna-Attisha noted Flint is currently creating several programs to promote child-development, especially when it comes to increasing literacy. With Hanna-Attisha’s new program called Flint Kids Read, every child in Flint between the ages of 0 and 5 gets a book mailed to their house every month.
Hanna-Attisha’s former mentor and SEAS professor emeritus Paul Webb beamed with pride upon greeting her at an informal Q&A at the School of Environment and Sustainability, also attended by members of campus television station WOLV-TV.
“She may think she’s in the 5-foot area, but I’ve always looked up to her even as she was an undergraduate,” Webb said.
Hanna-Attisha concluded the book talk with one more prescription for hope regarding Flint.
“Flint is not going to be defined by this crisis, but rather, by our recovery,” Hanna-Attisha said.