Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

The pediatrician and public health advocate discusses the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Mona Hanna-Attisha MD MPH FAAP is director of Hurley’s Pediatric Residency Program. A Michigan native, Dr. Hanna-Attisha grew up in Royal Oak and first fell in love with Pediatrics while on the Flint Campus during her clinical years as a medical student at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

After completing her residency and chief residency at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, she earned a master’s degree in Public Health, concentrating in Health Management and Policy, at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was an assistant professor at Wayne State University Department of Pediatrics and an associate director of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Pediatric Residency Program prior to returning to Hurley.

In addition to educating the next generation of physicians, Dr. Hanna-Attisha now directs the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Public Health Initiative, an innovative and model public health program to research, monitor and mitigate the impact of lead in Flint’s drinking water.

Follow @MonaHannaA on Twitter.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

It was three years ago when the people of Flint, Michigan were poisoned by their own water supply. After the dangerous switch to the Flint River was completed, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha helped blow the whistle on what many believed was a criminal act. Tonight she’ll give us an update from the front lines of that struggle.

Then someone who’s been fighting for clean water on a global scale, Julian Lennon. He is, of course, the eldest son of the famous Beatle, John Lennon, and he’s using his new children’s book to spread his love for Mother Earth.

We are glad you’ve joined us. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Julian Lennon coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Flint’s most famous doctor to this program, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She has become one of the most courageous voices in that city’s water crisis sounding the alarm on a poisonous supply that contained lead, E.coli, and possibly Legionnaire’s Disease. She joins us tonight from Troy, Michigan. Dr. Mona, an honor to have you on this program.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: It’s great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: So three years later, these criminal cases are just starting to get underway. Let me just start by asking whether or not three years later you think what happened in your city was in fact criminal.

Hanna-Attisha; Yeah, absolutely criminal. One of the greatest environmental crimes really of our century. And we have been using the past tense, three years ago, but we are very much still in the middle of this crisis. To this day, going on our fourth year, the people of Flint cannot drink unfiltered water, so we are still in the middle of this crime.

Tavis: And what’s your sense of, or what are they saying at least, the end game is here? How much longer will residents, you know, three or four years later, still be forced to drink bottled water?

Hanna-Attisha: Yeah, so we finally had a huge settlement that happened which was great. It’s one of these efforts at accountability and that settlement5 led by the NRDC and the ACLU is going to guarantee pipe replacements.

We’re going to finally get these damaged pipes out of the ground and then that whole process of pipe replacement will take another two to three years. So for another two to three years, the people of Flint should be on filtered and bottled water.

Tavis: Give me your sense of what the impact of this crisis has been in your own words.

Hanna-Attisha; Yeah, so you can think of it like an entire city with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. An entire city that already had so many obstacles was entirely betrayed by every agency that was supposed to protect the people and we have an entire city which was exposed to a neurotoxin, lead, is one of the well-known, most well-studied neurotoxins that we know of.

And on top of that, you know, bacteria, one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaire’s Disease in our country. So we have a community that is traumatized and time will tell, you know, what happens to this population, especially our children.

But I get to spend my every day making sure that our kids turn out okay. We can’t sit back and see the consequences, see the drastic consequences. It’s really providing us with an opportunity to do everything, especially for our children, so that we don’t see the life-altering consequences, especially of lead exposure.

Tavis: Speaking of those children and those life-altering consequences, Dr. Mona, what is in place as yet, assuming there is something in place as yet, that’s going to track these kids for the next 20, 30, 40 years, whatever it might be, to see what the long-term implications of this crisis was?

Hanna-Attisha: Absolutely. That is how I spend my every day. I direct something called the Pediatric Public Health Initiative where we are investing in the children and we’re evaluating our outcomes and we’re leading the effort to build a registry not only to support the kids today, but also to track and evaluate and see how they’re doing for decades to come.

Not to see the consequences of lead exposure, the impacts it has on cognition and behavior and the criminal justice system, but really hopefully to show what hasn’t been done before, how we’re able to proactively invest in children and to share really hopefully best practices in decades to come.

Tavis: To your phrase, proactively invest in these children, who in fact is investing? Who’s funding this? And let’s assume in a worst case scenario that there are consequences healthwise for these kids for years to come. Who’s going to pay for that?

Hanna-Attisha; That’s a great question. So we’ve been able to do so much for the kids. We have a Medicaid waiver. We have nutrition programming. We have education investment, early education investment, universal preschool, literacy programs. All these things are funded by a blend of state, federal and philanthropic dollars, but they’re all time-limited.

They’re only funded for, say, two or three years and many of those things are threatened by the current presidential administration. So we need to make sure that we have long-term investment for these children because this is a long-term situation.

Tavis: Threatened by this administration in what ways?

Hanna-Attisha; Yeah. For example, we have a Medicaid waiter, so our kids in Flint have an expanded healthcare access through Medicaid. Medicaid, the ACA, health insurance is being threatened. A lot of the programs that support vulnerable families like the WIC program, food assistance, after-school programming.

These are all things that our children in Flint are benefitting from because we know they promote development and can mitigate the impact of this exposure. All of those things are on the chopping block, not to mention the cuts to the EPA.

You know, we will see really many more Flints to come, but we will also see the progress that we’ve made become blunted if we continue to threaten programs that the EPA runs, such as safe drinking water programs and lead prevention programs.

Tavis: The politics notwithstanding — and I’m not naïve in asking this question — but it’s one thing for the philanthropic support to perhaps be limited by a number of years. You’ll go back to those organizations, you’ll ask to re-fund for another few years.

I suspect some of them will, but I don’t understand how it is that the government, the state government, the local government, the federal government could only be at this point committed to helping these kids for two or three years down the road. What’s that about?

Hanna-Attisha; So budgets are made for one or two years. There’s not that long-term perspective, but this is a long-term issue and we need a commitment for decades to come and we have yet to see that.

Tavis: What numbers of kids are we talking about that you suspect will or are being affected by this?

Hanna-Attisha: Sure. You know, the entire population of Flint, the little less than 100,000, everybody was impacted, kids, adults, senior, even animals. But lead is most toxic to the developing brain. I mean, it’s children under six that really bear the brunt of this exposure and there’s about 10,000 kids under the age of six in Flint.

Tavis: So it did not cost the governor his job, but what is your sense of the accountability or lack thereof on the part of officials four years later?

Hanna-Attisha: Yeah. You know, my job as a pediatrician is to take care of the kids. And right when this happened, my focus became preserving the tomorrows of these kids. So I have not really been invested or involved in the accountability, but I can tell you that the accountability is incredibly important for the people of Flint. You can almost think of it like a truth and reconciliation process.

We need to have that truth, the investigations, the charges to really bring out some sort of restorative justice. And then that long process of reconciliation healing can begin. I know there’s over 300 lawsuits against the state. There’s been many criminal charges, but I think really it’s just the beginning.

Tavis: So there are those lawsuits you referenced a moment ago, Dr. Mona. There are these criminal cases that are making their way forward as I mentioned earlier at the top of this program. But give me your thoughts about that — and I like the way you framed it — sort of like a TRC as we saw, of course, in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Is there any akin to that in the State of Michigan?

Hanna-Attisha: Not that I know of. Nothing that I know of in the State of Michigan. But, you know, this is a crisis that was really on top of decades of crises. Flint was under emergency management which was really unprecedented. Michigan has really the most egregious kind of form where a state can take over a city, so there’s really no precedent for that.

And then during this emergency management process when the city had lost democracy is when the move was made to switch to the Flint River without treating it properly. So there really is nothing like this that has happened before.

Tavis: Speaking of nothing like this has happened before, you were right about that, but there are going to be, we are told, other cases like this that are going to happen in the future if something isn’t done.

Erin Brockovich has been a regular guest on this program over the years and as upset as she and all of us have been about the Flint crisis, there are some of us who feel, perhaps you do as well, that at the moment, three or four years later, there might be some Flint fatigue.

But I wonder how long you think it’s going to be before another crisis like this in another city develops that might bring us right back to what we should have learned and should have done after the Flint crisis.

Hanna-Attisha: Absolutely. And we should have learned lessons before Flint. In Washington, D.C. a decade ago, there was a similar lead in water crisis and we learned very little from that crisis. There’s been about 150 years of lead in water crisis and we haven’t had the political will to do much about it.

I’ll give you a great story. The Romans built their aqueducts out of lead plumbing. The word lead comes from the world plumbum. The elemental symbol for lead is Pb. So there’s been — and many people have hypothesized the demise of the Romans is because they used so much lead.

So we’ve known for a long time about lead in our plumbing and we haven’t really done much about it. And if we continue to not do much about it, we will see many more Flints to come. And we are creating this perfect milieu of more Flints to come.

We are denying science. We want to cut regulations that protect public health. We want to de-fund and under-fund and really eliminate these public health agencies. We want to cut funding to scientific research, and we want to cut healthcare to millions of people.

All of these things together are a perfect storm for us to see many, many more Flints to come, which is tragic. Because after Flint, it’s really been my charge to prevent another Flint. All of this was absolutely preventable. No child should be exposed to lead from any source. We need to learn from our mistakes and make these regulations and protection stronger.

Tavis: As I mentioned at the top of this conversation, you’re sitting tonight in Troy, Michigan down the road a bit from Flint. But as our audience can see, you are sitting in front of a backdrop, in front of a medical center, which leads me to ask how in Flint the medical community has responded. What say you about your respect for — your increased respect, I suspect — for the medical community in Flint?

Hanna-Attisha: Yeah, so the medical community has played a huge role in not only exposing this crisis, having my back, supporting me throughout this crisis, but really intervening. So in our medical clinics are a lot of the interventions to protect especially the children are taking place.

For example, early literacy programs and trauma-informed care where we take care of patients differently, recognizing this huge trauma they’ve been through, a lot of the mental health services, behavior health services, and a lot of the reassurance and hope that we’re trying to instill in our community. I see patients every day and it’s almost I’ve been writing, you could call it, prescriptions for hope.

You know, they feel devastated. They hear what you’re hearing. They hear brain damage and irreversible neurotoxin. So we’re really trying to instill, especially in our children, that they are bright, that they are brave, that they are smart and that they have, you know, an amazing future ahead of them. A lot of that is being led by our medical community.

Tavis: I’ll close on this note. The entire audience knows that you were castigated, you were demonized when you first came out with this story some years ago. People didn’t want to believe you. The state and other officials pushed back on you. We all know that you were right in retrospect.

And I keep reading that, even all these years later, you’re still getting letters from little girls around the country and around the world who lookup to you, who are proud of you, who want to be like you. What do you say to these little girls in your responses?

Hanna-Attisha: I tell them be loud, be stubborn, fight for what’s right. You know, this is a great story of how we need to believe in science and we’re approaching Earth Day, we’re approaching the March of Science. You know, trust your gut, trust the facts, but use those numbers to make the world a better place.

You know, I continue to this day to do my job, to protect my kids as a pediatrician, and to use my voice to elevate their voices. So, you know, this injustice is everywhere. Flint is just one example, and we need lots of loud, stubborn little girls, especially brown ones, to make a difference in this world.

Tavis: The struggle continues. You are a whistleblower beloved these years later. Thank you for your witness, for your work ongoing. Dr. Mona, good to have you on this program. Stay strong in your work.

Hanna-Attisha: Thank you. Great to be here.

Tavis: Good to have you on this program. Up next, musician Julian Lennon on his children’s book. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: April 24, 2017 at 11:36 am