Courage isn’t something that one typically thinks of when discussing physicians, especially pediatricians. Defined as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty,” the courage exhibited by Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha truly fits that definition. She had the strength and moral character to take on the cause of the children in Flint, MI and their toxic exposure to lead in their tap water back around 2014-2015. Overcoming multiple difficulties, hurdles and political obstacles, she withstood the onslaught of potentially withering criticism to listen to her patients and families, to speak out and advocate on their behalf, to use science to prove past, present and future harms, and to garner a team that could fight back as needed. The Flint water crisis would likely have gone unmasked for an extended period of time without her tenacity and willingness to fight the good fight.
I bring the story of this brilliant yet exceedingly humble pediatrician to our attention as a reminder that the work of protecting and enhancing the physical, social, educational, family and psychological environments of our children and families is the ongoing work of ALL of us. Sometimes we need folks like Dr. Mona (as she likes to go by) to push us firmly and in so doing exhibit the strength to “venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty” when others refuse to believe the science to protect our children unconditionally.
Let’s review a few of the events along the Flint water crisis timeline—
- Back in 2000-2004, Washington DC faced a similar lead-in-the-water crisis due to corrosive elements in the water that caused lead to leak into the tap water from the pipes. Children and even adults were exposed to toxic levels that could cause brain injury, blunted development, intellectual disability, poor impulse control, or memory loss, to name a few of the effects. In other words, lead exposure potentially severely affects the brain for all exposed but especially in the most vulnerable, our infants and children.
- An emergency manager in Flint, MI (a state-appointed official who was not elected to a governing role) authorized the switch of the Flint water supply from nearby Lake Huron (the same source for Detroit) to the Flint River. The switch was deemed to be a money-saver. The switch was flipped in April 2014. No anti-corrosive measures (though required by federal standards) were taken.
- Immediately, complaints about the water (foul-smelling, bad-tasting) were heard but the water officials said that the testing met all federal standards. Subsequently, various health complaints were also reported.
- Concerned federal officials and investigative journalists released reports of elevated lead in the Flint water due to the lack of non-corrosive measures. Their reports were dismissed by the local and state authorities.
- Mona (with her network of colleagues) realized that the stories that she was hearing in the clinic could reflect lead exposure in children. And that these young infants could suffer irreparable damage if the problem continued.
- Investigative work (checking lead levels in the water, checking lead levels in the children, collating data over a period of time) subsequently revealed dangerous levels of lead in the Flint drinking water.
- A press conference in September 2015 revealed the conclusive data about the lead exposure to children from the Flint water.
- On October 16, 2015, the water was switched back to the previous supply. Non-corrosive water was again flowing but untold damage in the children of Flint had already occurred.
Dr. Mona was tenacious and endured a barrage of governmental and political naysayers questioning her results and even her integrity. Yet she persisted. She recognized the systemic racism inherent in this environmental crisis—this would not have likely occurred in a community of higher socio-economic status and definitely would not have persisted this long. She recognized that the children needed strong advocates to fight for them, that the most vulnerable amongst us usually get the least protection. A courageous pediatrician, indeed.
Reference—What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hannah-Attisha (2018)