March 25, 2016 | By Chuck Carlson
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, never thought her job would entail convincing parents and their kids that the water they drink won't kill them.
"Parents tell me they turn on the water and their kids cry," said Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the guest speaker Wednesday night for Albion College's Anna Howard Shaw Lecture inside Towsley Lecture Hall. "Kids now fear water."
It is still a sentiment Hanna-Attisha, director of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine's Pediatrics Program at Flint's Hurley Hospital, finds hard to believe.
But speaking out, and educating, has become the new normal for Hanna-Attisha, who for nearly a year has been at the center of the Flint water crisis that has not only drawn international attention but has taken its place in the presidential campaign.
It has also made her something of a media darling.
Indeed, Hanna-Attisha has been profiled on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News as well state and regional TV; she has appeared in numerous state and national publications and was recently nominated for Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People.
Her easygoing manner and down-to-earth explanation of the crisis has also made her a hit on the lecture circuit.
Saying she receives three to five requests a week to speak about Flint and its ongoing water issue, she has taken her cautionary tale from Grand Rapids to Lansing and even to the Upper Peninsula in Marquette.
"I've been doing a lot of talks lately," she said prior to her appearance at Albion. "But it's important. The message needs to get out and l love to tell the story."
It's not a fun story to tell.
In front of some 100 Albion students, faculty, staff and local residents, her speech, titled "Growing Up in Flint – Challenges and Beyond," Hanna-Attisha offered stark descriptions of what Flint was, what it has become, and how this has become a national tragedy since every level of government failed the struggling city when it needed help the most.
She spoke of the city's 40 percent poverty rate, the economic collapse after much of the auto industry left, a crumbling infrastructure and a life expectancy 20 years below the national average.
Then came April 2014 when, in a cost-saving move, Flint switched from using Lake Huron water, its source for more than 50 years, to the more corrosive Flint River.
Additives to clean the Flint River water were not used, also as a cost-saving move, and coupled with the city's old pipes caused lead to seep into the water supply.
That sparked an increase in dangerous lead levels in residents. Especially hard hit were children.
First hearing about the problem from Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who believed Flint's water to be far more corrosive than its previous supply, Dr. Hanna-Attisha began comparing blood samples from Flint children with those from children in surrounding Genesee County. She found a dramatic increase in lead.
"It was a perfect storm," said Hanna-Attisha, who began noticing lead in her patients more than a year ago and tried to get some answers. "Almost immediately we knew there was a problem. But it fell on deaf ears."
When she learned that corroded pipes, especially in some of Flint's poorest neighborhoods, were leeching lead into the drinking water, she said simply, "As a pediatrician, I was freaked out," adding that it has been established for years that lead in the blood can cause cognitive issues, affect IQ, spark attention deficit disorder and even lead to criminal behavior.
"There are no safe levels of lead in the body," she said. "People thought lead was a problem of yesterday. Unfortunately, it's a gift that just keeps on giving. "
Armed with facts and evidence about what lead has been doing to Flint residents, Dr. Hanna-Attisha has become one of the more vocal, and visible, advocates for a city she has grown to love and defend. So she is speaking out when and where she can in hopes that education will help other communities avoid what Flint has had to deal with.
"My job as a pediatrician is to be an advocate," she said. "We have a community that's traumatized. Every single agency failed and parents are asking 'What's going to happen to my child?' But there's no point in being angry. We do have an opportunity to do good, to be proactive."
To that end, Dr. Hanna-Attisha spoke of plans in place to help residents deal with the issue that will likely remain for the foreseeable future.
She spoke of the MSU/Hurley Pediatric Public Health Initiative that includes assessment of the issue, monitoring of the problem and, in Hanna-Attisha's view the most important part, intervention to make sure it can't happen again.
"This is where we're trying to flip our story," she said. "This is our reinvestment in Flint."
There has also been the creation of the Flint Child Health and Development Fund where, through donations, families can have access to nutritional food and education, early childhood education, social services, medical services and more.
"This is our tomorrow fund," Hanna-Attisha said.
The nation has responded, donating more than 540,000 cases of bottled water while the state of Michigan has donated more than 110,000 home water filters and nearly 43,000 water test kits, according to Michigan Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
As for the political fallout, she only shakes her head.
Recent Capitol Hill hearings tore into Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the regional Environmental Protection Agency office and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, accusing them of not recognizing the problem sooner and addressing it.
"It was entertainment," she said of the hearings. "It was just finger-pointing and no real solutions."
The solutions, she said, must come from the grassroots.
"We're trying to build hope in families," she said. "They've been traumatized. We're trying to put a positive spin on it."
And Dr. Hanna-Attisha also had a message for Albion College students who want to make a difference.
"You have to be loud," she said. "You have to be stubborn and you have to be determined. You're not going to wake up and say, 'I'm going to save the world.' It will fall in your lap."