Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is one of the Women of the Century in USA TODAY. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we have compiled a list of 100 women who have made a significant impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all on August 14th.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha could not wait. The pediatrician had found elevated levels of lead in children’s blood in Flint, Michigan. She had evidence the city water, collected from the Flint River, had been poisoned with lead.
In September 2015, it sounded the alarm.
“As doctors and as academics, when we do research it becomes verified and your peers look at it. It’s a long process,” Hanna-Attisha said. “I did something completely disobedient in the world of the academic doctor: I literally walked out of my clinic and got up at a press conference and shared this research. Because there was no time. Every day that passed was another day that was put children at risk. “
She said she felt great for about half an hour after going out in public. “I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s great. I’m protecting children. Things will change.'”
But that did not happen. Immediately after she shared the science, the state said it was a mistake, that her research was not in line with their larger oversight data. “The words that were said were that I was an unfortunate researcher,” she said, “that I was causing imminent hysteria, which is also sexist.”
She said officials had removed Flint’s troubled people for months – parents, religious leaders, journalists, activists. “I should never have done that research. Obviously the water crisis should never have started. It should have stopped when that first mother was holding a container of coffee water.”
She said she felt small, defeated. “I had an overwhelming sense of compelling syndrome, which I probably should not have done. Maybe I should continue to do my business as a busy mother, pediatrician, wife.
“Nothing can prepare you when the whole state comes after you and tells you you were wrong.”
Of course, she was not wrong. Not everyone else who would call for change for Flint, a Black Wholesale city. The city had started using Flint River water in April 2014.
“So it took some time,” said Hanna-Attisha, now an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University, “but finally with teamwork and perseverance and more science, we spoke the truth to power.” “.
Women of the Century: For Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, activism is stuck in its culture
In 2015, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, 43, testified to the world that water in Flint, Michigan was stained with lead.
Q: How is the water quality in Flint now?
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: Just a few weeks after (the press conference), we returned to the waters of the Great Lakes. So it was in October 2015. And since then our water quality has improved over time. However, the year and a half we were in this super corrosive water damaged our lead pipes, and they are being replaced now. Within a few months this year, in 2020, those pipelines will all be replaced. And this is a huge success, we will be just the third city in the country to have replaced our lead pipes. But until those pipes are replaced, people are still in precautions to filter their water and use bottled water.
And how are the children who were exposed to the lead?
We have started something called the Flint Register supported by the Centers for Disease Control, where we are identifying those who were exposed. Most importantly, linking them to services to promote their health and development and tracking them over time. We are starting to get that data now about how that population of children and even adults are acting. … There are concerns about development and behavior and many other possible issues that may have been related to this water crisis.
It was dinner with a high school friend, an environmental engineer, who started your search.
So we were hanging out, drinking a glass of wine, the kids were playing, my husband was doing barbecue. This was when she expressed that the water was not being treated properly and was missing this important ingredient called corrosion control, which I had never heard of before. And that without this ingredient there would be lead in the water.
What I knew at the time is that my life would never be the same. When I heard the word “bullet”, there was no turning back, it was just moving forward. As pediatricians, as someone in public health, we know what lead does. It is a powerful irreversible neurotoxin. There is no safe level. We respect science for what lead does. And when I heard that word in my house, in my kitchen, with my high school girlfriend, I knew what I had to do.
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So you looked at children’s blood work to demand an elevated level of lead exposure?
Yes. The research I did was to see if the kids were being damaged by the bullet in the water. Responsible persons continued to say that everything was in order, and there was no problem, all mothers and activists, journalists and water scientists were being discredited and dismissed when they were bringing any concern.
I knew that if I were to make a crisis in this crisis, I would have to prove that our children were on the path to harm. I tried to get those data from our state and county health departments. However, they were not willing to share that information. So I quickly did the research using blood lead data from our medical records at the hospital (Hurley Children’s Hospital). It was research that would probably take as much as six months. They passed like weeks because I could not sleep. I literally could not sleep without knowing what was going on with our children. I also stopped eating. I lost about 30 pounds.
Tell me about your parents, your childhood, your background.
I should not have been in this place. It was not part of my parents’ master plan. And I think like most immigrants who are never part of anyone’s plan. We are Iraqis; my father was finishing his studies in the UK. My brother, who is only one year older than me, was born in Baghdad and it was our intention to return home. And it was during that time in the late 1970s that Saddam Hussein’s regime began to become more powerful. My parents saw it and feared the rise of fascism in Iraq. They realized that it might not be a good idea to return home, especially with two young children.
Although we as a family were able to come to the States, my parents never protected us from what was happening at home. From atrocities, the kind of rise of oppression and dictatorship. And he felt that, no matter where I was or wherever we were, we had a role to play, especially to bring to light injustice.
A car accident aroused your interest in medicine. Can you talk about that?
(During a winter vacation trip) I was about 5 years old; we hit a piece of black ice. The car shook, she went back and forth and back and forth beyond the guards. This was before the time of seat belts. My brother and I were in the back seat and I was light as a feather. With each back and forth with the car, I was jumping in every direction. Then we went down to a ditch. I do not know how help came, but help came and I was in a hospital with a broken neck and a broken jaw.
So I’m lucky to be here. And it was when I was in the hospital, I remember being cared for by an amazing doctor, a woman who also had some kind of brown hair and brown eyes and darker skin like me, who was providing for me, my family, my mom they had very limited English, and who told me I would be okay.
This kind really sparked my interest in medicine and service. And I knew a little over 30 years later it would be me in a white coat, telling another community that they were also involved in an accident that was not their fault. But it would be my job to make sure they came out okay.
How did you stay strong during the Flint crisis? What kept you going?
My children, my children Flint. When I’m not home, (my kids) I’m going to tell you that Mom is not home, she ‘s with our 6000 sisters. My Flint kids are no different than my kids. And that is what still bases me to this day. It is their promise, their potential.
Flint’s story is not an isolated one. There are children who grow up in conditions when the trajectory of their life is changed by their environment. Whether it is toxin pollution, whether it is extreme poverty, or food scarcity or schools destroyed, or the continuing effects of racism and insecure separation or housing. The list goes on and on for many of our children who limit their promise.
So a lot of my work at Flint is really asking kids to stand up and succeed despite all these big loads on their shoulders. We are thinking about it the wrong way. We applaud and celebrate those children who despite the great obstacles were able to succeed and go to college and do something of themselves. And we should not celebrate these exceptions, we should create those environments, systems, where all children can succeed.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of US TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.