Dr. Mona talks about her book, What the Eyes Don’t See, and her advocacy efforts regarding the Flint water crisis.

May 24, 2022

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha Speaks on Flint Water Crisis Research at Seminar

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On Apr. 26, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, founder and director of the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, spoke at the Joyce Lindower Wolitzer ’76 and Steven Wolitzer Nutrition Seminar. She discussed her 2018 memoir What the Eyes Don’t See and her public health advocacy efforts during the Flint water crisis.

The Flint water crisis began in 2014 when the city’s government switched its water source from the Great Lakes to the Flint River in an effort to save money. 

This was partly due to the usurped democracy, Hanna-Attisha said, where the city of Flint was taken over by the state government. 

According to Hanna-Attisha, it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 when former Lead Environmental Engineer Elin Betanzo at the Environmental Protection Agency informed her that the new pipeline was not being treated for corrosion control. 

Corrosion control is the addition of non-toxic chemicals to achieve a slightly alkaline chemical balance. This balance prevents pipes from eroding and allowing harmful substances to leach into drinking water. Some chemicals also create corrosion inhibitors that form protective films on pipe walls so that matter like lead cannot get through to the water. 

Lead is known to cause mood disorders, irreversible neurological deficits, maternal-fetal issues, learning disabilities, hypertension and other symptoms.

The history of Flint, Michigan plays a critical role in the lead contamination and Hanna-Attisha’s story. 

During her talk, Hanna-Attisha referred to the birth of General Motors and the unionization of the automotive industry in Flint. The same water supply that citizens were drinking was also corroding car parts at GM’s engine and factory plants. The auto plant also dumped copious amounts of pollutants into the river. 

GM is a major employer of Flint residents. Following an employee strike in 1998, GM began to close shops and take business elsewhere. This led to thousands of residents losing their jobs. 

This contributed to high levels of impoverishment in Flint, which further contributed to the racism and neglect the city, and its large Black population, faced.

Race played a substantial role in the development of the policies that led to the water crisis disproportionately harming people of color. This systemic racism contributed to the unprecedented hardship that has influenced generations of Flint residents. 

Through routine blood testing in children aged one to two, Hanna-Attisha and her team discovered Flint residents had extremely high blood-lead levels in comparison to other geographic regions in the United States. 

A test of drinking water in one Flint home revealed concentration of lead 25 times higher than the level deemed actionable by the EPA. They held a press conference with government officials where she presented their research findings

Throughout her research and advocacy, Hanna-Attisha remained steadfast in her mission to highlight the health consequences of the Flint water crisis despite being met with political resistance, stalling and a state-led smear campaign. 

Hanna-Attisha worked to establish upstream fixes and implement preventative policies by advocating for nutrition promotion, early literacy and supplementation as part of a holistic approach to tackling health inequities. 

Her memoir details an “everywhere story, a story of hope and recovery,” Hanna-Attisha said.

Hanna-Attisha’s book can be applied to other public health issues — such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic — due to its emphasis on resilience and vigilance about injustices, especially those rooted in inequality.