Flint pediatrician talks future of lead contamination effects
In an effort to have an open and transparent conversation on the Flint water crisis, Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center spoke at the University Wednesday. In an hour-long presentation, she offered discussion of a timeline for the crisis and medical and psychological facts regarding lead and possible next steps.
Hanna-Attisha headed a study in September 2015 that showed the proportion of children in Flint with high lead levels had significantly increased, contrary to what state officials said at the time.
The lecture room in The School of Public Health was filled, along with two other full lecture rooms showing live video feeds. Public Health graduate student Patrick Kelly said he attended the event because he saw the crisis as an issue that hits close to home for him.
“I think it’s one of the biggest environmental health crises of our time,” Kelly said.
Though the passion in the room was clear, it seemed to be driven by curiosity rather than outrage.
“It’s a sad situation, but I still need to learn more about it, myself," said Public Health graduate student Christian Balcer.
However, by the end of the presentation some attendees expressed anger toward the government’s response to the crisis. Attendees such as Health Informatics graduate student Jarrod Sandel said he was distressed by the response of officials.
“You look at the work that Dr. Mona and other people have tried to do to try to bring this to a head,” Sandel said. “And to have them be stonewalled at every step is just horrendous. It’s a public health failure.”
During her remarks, Hanna-Attisha said approximately 18 months went by with the state government and the Environmental Protection Agency withholding information.
“Right away the water was brown,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It looked gross. It smelled gross. It tasted gross. People complained instantly about rashes and hair loss, but it fell on deaf ears … Then, in October 2014, GM stopped using this water because it was corroding engine parts. This is when alarms and red flags really should have gone off.”
Hanna-Attisha also noted the potential effects of lead contamination on humans — specifically children. These effects may include decreased IQ, ADHD behavior and increased criminality. Most of all, Hanna-Attisha said the children and the community as a whole have been affected by trauma.
“We have a community that's absolutely traumatized,” Hanna-Attisha said. “I see the moms in clinic, and the sacks under their eyes. This is trauma for two things, loss of trust in their government — governmental betrayal and neglect for two years. This is 2015. This is Michigan. We are literally in the middle of the Great Lakes and we could not guarantee a population that they're drinking clean water. And they're traumatized by lead.”
Social effects aside, the cost to the government for treating these ailments will be significant, Hanna-Attisha added.
“In the nation we spend about $50-100 billion dollars a year treating the consequences of lead poisoning,” Hanna-Attisha said. “So you add up decrease of lifetime earning, special education costs, criminal justice costs, mental health costs — it is staggering.”
Speaking to ways to buffer the impact of lead exposure, she also discussed efforts to increase accessibility to the Hurley Medical Center.
The Hurley Medical Center confronts all the biggest obstacles between Flint residents and better health such as transportation, consistency and diet, according to Hanna-Attisha. To combat these issues, the center is located next to a bus stop, vulnerable families visit the same nurse at least until the child reaches age two and the center is located above a healthy foods farmers market, which offers special deals to clients. However, Hanna-Attisha said the center still needs a lot of development. “We’re building a plane while flying it,” she said.
Hanna-Attisha offered advice on how to help the Flint area, specifically in regards to the water crisis.
“Stop giving us water, we don’t need water," Hanna-Attisha said. "What we need is an investment in tomorrow.”
She recommended donating to research funds and hospitals on the front lines or to community organizations helping the day-to-day situation of these families. She finished the presentation by emphasizing the need to empower children, quoting Frederick Douglass.
“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”