NEW YORK — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha had no reservations when she stood before a bank of microphones and announced her findings: a silent epidemic had hit thousands of children in Flint, Michigan.
Their blood lead levels had spiked to double and triple the norm after drinking contaminated water. Yet to make such a public statement was, in her words, “an academic no-no. It was not what you do.” In the world of science and medicine, researchers are supposed to gather data, submit an abstract to a journal, get it peer reviewed and then publish.
“But that process takes longer. And our kids didn’t have a day,” the 39-year-old pediatrician said, speaking with The Times of Israel via Skype from her home in Michigan.
At first she was called “hysterical” and an “unfortunate researcher.” Nevertheless she persisted and ultimately was validated.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology awarded her its first-ever $250,000 Media Lab Disobedience Award for responsibly breaking protocol and presenting her findings at a press conference rather than in a paper.
She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, and co-chaired the March for Science in Washington, DC, last April. This past December she received the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award at the 74th Union for Reform Judaism Biennial for her work.
As much as Hanna-Attisha’s story is a story of science and medicine, it is also about social justice and democracy, and what happens when one citizen steps up and speaks out.
But she says it is also a story about what happens when public health and environmental protections are threatened.
“We are in a period of science denial. We are seeing it in the denial of climate change, in the dismantling of the EPA. And Flint is a perfect example of what happens when we deny science. The science was there. It was common-sense science, but also the factual science. It was there in the water tests and the blood tests,” Hanna-Attisha said.
“So we cannot stay silent, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We have to speak up because all around there are attacks on science. If we do not use our voice, especially for communities that have had their voices taken away, then we are not fulfilling our duty and obligation,” she said.
That way of thinking and the work she has done since is why URJ presented her with the award.
“She really emphasized an issue that was all the rage for a little and is now one that’s easy to not think about. But she understood the issue — that clean drinking water for Flint was the presenting issue, but the real disease is the political powerlessness, that there is a group of people that’s easy to ignore,” said Mark Pelavin, URJ’s chief program officer and the URJ biennial director.
200 beats a minute
It was August 2015 and Hanna-Attisha was attending a dinner party. At one point a friend mentioned that in 2014 the city of Flint stopped using proper corrosion control after it decided to get its water from the Flint River rather than from Detroit’s water system. The state-appointed emergency manager made the switch in the name of cost savings.
Flint residents noticed changes soon after the switch. Brown and yellow water gushed out of faucets. It tasted horrible. People got rashes. Others complained of headaches.
But that’s not what sent Hanna-Attisha’s heart racing. Her pulse skyrocketed because she knew Flint’s water was being pumped through lead-based plumbing.
“It’s an irreversible neurotoxin,” she said.
It’s also stealthy. It’s a silent pediatric epidemic, Hanna-Attisha explained. It takes years after exposure for the effects to manifest. A child exposed at two might not show symptoms, which include behavior and cognitive issues. In adults it can affect nearly every organ and cause early onset dementia.
Knowing this, Hanna-Attisha, who is director of the Hurley Children’s Clinic, wanted the blood lead levels of all the children in Flint. However, she couldn’t access the county’s records.
Ever resourceful, she started her own research project and collected data from clinic patients. Unsurprisingly, they had elevated lead levels. In some cases the percentage of lead poisoning in kids who were tested jumped from five percent to 15%.
A month after Hanna-Attisha sounded the alarm the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reviewed the data and verified her findings. Of the 9,422 children who received blood lead tests 7,306 were affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Soon after, the state started testing drinking water. Eventually work began to replace the city’s lead pipes, but three years later, the crisis isn’t over — Flint citizens are still drinking bottled and filtered water.
Hanna-Attisha was born in Sheffield, England and immigrated to the United States with her parents and brother when she was 4 years old. Her parents had left Iraq in 1975 so her father could work on his PhD in the United Kingdom. They planned on returning to Iraq after he finished, but then Saddam Hussein rose to power, the war with Iran started and they couldn’t go back.
That’s when they immigrated to the United States.
“For us, the American dream meant freedom — and that was the lens I grew up in. I realized how lucky I was ever since I got to this country. When you’re raised that way and you hear these stories, that becomes your family values. I had an almost heightened antenna for injustice. It drew me to places where I could serve, where I could take care of the underdogs,” she said.
That, and the story of her grew uncle Nouri Roufeal, propelled her forward that day when she decided break the news about the children of Flint.
Her uncle left Iraq in the 1930s to study at MIT. He too was an activist and eventually lost his scholarship because, as Hanna-Attisha said in her speech at the biennial, he was doing “a bit too much rallying and not so much studying.”
“But that spark — that vision that made him see how the world could be — was lit here and his activism continued back home where he bravely spent his entire life fighting for justice,” she said.
Her uncle went on to help write the Iraqi declaration of independence from British rule.
Hanna-Attisha’s personal story also resonated with URJ’s Pelavin.
“It’s a profoundly American story. This Arab-American woman caring for African-American children and telling it to a Jewish audience. It’s a story that is getting lost in so much of the talk about immigration right now,” Pelavin said, adding that “the impression she made [at the biennial] and the conversation she triggered is real and profound.”
A long and winding road
Although no cure exists for lead poisoning, there are “a bazillion things we can do to limit the consequences,” Hanna-Attisha said.
In the wake of the crisis, she started the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. It has so far raised $20 million to help local children and their families get nutrition and healthcare services. Flint is now the only city in Michigan with universal pre-school and the only one where children receive a book each month to help improve their literacy.
“These are all things science tells us to do. It’s a wrap around public health approach to limit the consequences,” she said.
Additionally, Monday saw the launch of flintregistry.org. Funded in part by the CDC, the registry will monitor those who were exposed for next 10 or 15 years, to see how they are doing. It’s modeled after the World Trade Center registry, which tracks the health of those who lived, worked or went to school in the area of the 9/11 attacks.
Prescription for advocacy
To anyone who says physicians and scientists shouldn’t be political, Hanna-Attisha begs to differ.
“I think science and medicine is political, but it should never be partisan. It is very much in my job description as a pediatrician. It is part of our training. We train our pediatric residents how to be advocates for immunizations and gun control because children have no voice and have no vote,” she said.
That’s why she quoted from Dr. Martin Luther King when she received the award from URJ.
“‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality,’” she said. “That is one of my favorite quotes. The idea that if we stay silent it’s a worse evil. And that is very much true in public health. We must speak out to safeguard our most vulnerable populations.”