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Flint Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha on How She Fought Gov't Denials to Expose Poisoning of City's Kids

January 15, 2016
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Mona Hanna-Attisha

director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University. She discovered the connection between rising blood lead levels in Flint’s children with the switch to the Flint River as a water source.

Protesters filled the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing on Thursday, calling on Governor Rick Snyder to resign over the contamination crisis his government has caused in the city of Flint’s water. Hours later, Snyder asked President Obama to declare a federal emergency in Flint. Flint residents are dealing not just with lead poisoning, but a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that’s killed 10 people so far. The poisoning began in April 2014 after Darnell Earley, an unelected emergency manager appointed by Snyder, switched Flint’s water source to the long-polluted and corrosive Flint River in a bid to save money. We are joined by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the doctor who helped expose the lead poisoning. Dr. Hanna-Attisha headed a September study that found the proportion of children under five in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood nearly doubled following the water switch. State officials initially dismissed those findings, but Dr. Hanna-Attisha refused to accept their denials. On Thursday, she was named the head of a new public health initiative to help those exposed to the contamination.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Protests continue in Michigan calling for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder over the contamination crisis his government has caused in the city of Flint’s water supply. On Thursday, a large crowd rallied inside the state Capitol in Lansing demanding that Snyder step down.

PROTESTER: Don’t let anybody tell you this is just about water. This is about emergency management. This is about greed. This is about political corruption. And he will either resign or be recalled.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The poisoning began in April 2014 after Darnell Earley, an unelected emergency manager appointed by Snyder, switched Flint’s water source to the long-polluted and corrosive Flint River in a bid to save money. For over a year, Flint residents complained about the quality of the water, but their cries were ignored. In February, the government knew of tests showing alarming levels of lead in the water, but officials told residents there was no threat. That same month, an EPA official wrote an email to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality warning about lead contamination. No action was taken. Then in July, Governor Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote an email to health officials admitting Flint residents were, quote, "basically getting blown off by us," unquote. Critics say Flint’s health was ignored due to the political calculations of Snyder’s Republican administration. One of the poorest cities in the country, Flint has a 40 percent poverty rate and a majority African-American population.

AMY GOODMAN: Flint residents now face the threat of a major health crisis, whose full effects won’t be known for years. Lead can cause permanent health impacts, including memory loss, developmental impairment, irreversible brain damage, speech issues, serious chronic conditions, especially among children. At least 10 Flint residents now have also died from Legionnaires’ disease amidst a surge in infections caused by the water-borne bacteria. Experts say the Legionnaires’ outbreak may be tied to the contamination.

A study released in September found the proportion of children under five in Flint with elevated levels of lead in their blood nearly doubled following the water switch. State officials initially dismissed those findings. But the doctor who discovered them, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, refused to accept the state’s denials. County officials finally acknowledged the problem by declaring a public health emergency October 1st. On Thursday, Dr. Hanna-Attisha was named the head of a new public health initiative to help those exposed to the contamination.

We’re joined now by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University.

This is truly astounding, Dr. Mona, as you are known. Can you talk about when you realized that especially children were being contaminated by lead, and how the state responded?

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah. So, in late August, we were hearing reports from the Virginia Tech group that there was lead in the water. And when pediatricians hear about lead anywhere, we freak out. We know lead. Lead, as you said, is a known potent, irreversible neurotoxin. So we wanted to see if that lead in the water was getting into the bodies of children. So that’s when we started doing our research.

And what we found was alarming, but not surprising, based on what we knew about the water. The percentage of children with elevated lead levels tripled in the whole city, and in some neighborhoods—actually, it doubled in the whole city, and in some neighborhoods, it tripled. And it directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest. So we shared these results at a press conference, and you don’t usually share research at press conferences. It’s supposed to be shared in published medical journals, which now it is. But we had an ethical, moral, professional responsibility to alert our community about this crisis, this emergency.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the research that you did, all it took was being able to go back in your own—

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —medical records. And it wasn’t a series of new testing that you had to do. Could you talk about that?

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Right. So, we routinely screen children for lead at the ages of one and at ages of two. Medicaid children, who are on public insurance, are recommended to get lead screenings. So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done. So all we did was go back and look at our data. And we compared the percentage of children with elevated lead levels before the water switch, which was 2013, to 2015, and that water switch happened in 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what happened after you held your news conference.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, that evening, we were attacked. So I was called an "unfortunate researcher," that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie. And we knew that. But when the state, with a team of like 50 epidemiologists, tells you you’re wrong, you second-guess yourself. But that lasted just a short period, and we regrouped and told them why, "No, you were wrong." And after about a week and a half or two weeks, after some good conversations, they relooked at their numbers and finally said that the state’s findings were consistent with my findings.

AMY GOODMAN: You have bust this thing right open. And you were standing behind the governor and his people just the other day in a news conference of—you’ve been named head of—well, you can tell us what you’ve been named head of. But as they read the figures of people who were contaminated, you were shaking your head "no," right there in the frame, standing behind the government health officials. You were supposed to be standing with them, and you were shaking your head "no."

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes. So, I am willing to work with anybody for the benefit of children, and I was at that press conference with the governor and with state health officials, who we are working with now. However, they said that only 43 people since October had elevated lead levels. And it really minimizes this population-wide exposure. This is an entire population who was exposed to this neurotoxin. So when you say these small numbers, it just—once again, the population loses trust in government and in their ability to protect people.


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