Posted by Fadel Nabilsi on February 08, 2016 in Blog

In April of 2014 the water supply for the City of Flint was switched from Lake Huron, run through and treated by the City of Detroit, to the Flint River, long known for its dirty quality. Shortly after the switch Flint residents, who are predominately African American, raised concerns about the brown, smelly water pouring from their faucets. Despite the appointment of an Emergency Manager for the Flint water crisis, the local Flint government continued to deny that there was the severity of the issue, even as they handed out filters, bottled water, and issued three boil advisories. Despite this Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Director of the pediatric ward in the Flint Hurley Medical Center – and an Arab American – was not convinced. Dr. Mona, as she likes to be referred to, became concerned with the city’s water quality after discovering elevated levels of lead in the area’s children during routine blood tests. Along with her team, Dr. Mona began researching the higher levels of lead by comparing blood samples taken before and after the water supply switch. Dr. Mona was worried saying, “You don’t mess around with lead. You don’t mess around with water. That is an essential life need…these are vulnerable children.” 

The switch in water supply caused an increase in lead levels due to faulty piping, causing the water running through to erode the iron on the walls of the pipes and into the “filtered” water. This erosion, according to Dr. Mona’s research, concluded that the lead levels in children under the age of 6 had doubled city-wide and had even tripled in some of the neighborhoods. The presence of lead in the body causes many different issues, and effects people in different ways. According to Dr. Mona, “The main impact is on cognition and behavior, which will manifest usually as school problems — problems concentrating, problems focusing, comprehension and behavioral issues.”

Dr. Mona’s presented the team’s startling discoveries at a press conference in September of 2015. Even though research results are not traditionally presented at press conferences, Dr. Mona said that she and her team had an, “ethical-moral obligation,” to the people of Flint. According to Dr. Mona, after presenting her results state and city officials labeled her an “unfortunate researcher” and accused of “causing near hysteria,” even though this was, as Dr. Mona put it, "the easiest research project I've ever done." In light of these claims and when asked about her results, she said, “You know, you check and you double-check, and you know your research is right. The numbers didn't lie, but when the state is telling you you're wrong, it's hard not to second-guess yourself."

Dr. Mona and her team believe in “advocating for evidence-based interventions that work for all children who are at risk of developmental issues, so early literature programs and universal preschool, access to nutrition.”  Since her research was published, both the state and federal governments have declared a state of emergency for Flint. Dr. Mona is now leading a taskforce working to treat affected children and reduce lead exposure. While issues of water quality in Flint are beginning to be addressed, the larger ramifications of the crisis are only beginning to unfold. 

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