Spring 2021 Frizzell Keynote

By Hannah Wilson-Black

During May 19th’s Frizzell Family Speaker and Learning Series Keynote Address, pediatrician and author Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke about how she became involved in advocating for clean water for the children and families of Flint, Michigan. Flint was placed under the control of an Emergency Manager in 2011 and in 2014, the latest Emergency Manager (the position changed hands a few times between 2011 and 2014) switched Flint’s water source to the Flint River instead of Lake Huron, ostensibly to cut costs, but they chose not to treat the water with corrosion control chemicals, and the water corroded the city’s lead pipes, releasing lead into the drinking water and turning it brown in some cases. Water tests were conducted, but using unreliable testing methods that downplayed the danger. The Flint water crisis became a national news story around early 2016.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha got involved in the growing concern over Flint’s water quality in the summer of 2014. If there was anything she would go back and redo, she said, it would be the timing of her involvement—she would have joined the fight earlier instead of assuring patients that the water was safe, which is what she believed at the time. She pins much of the failure to stop the prolonged crisis in Flint on a lack of democratic representation in the city (the takeover of city governments under Michigan’s Emergency Manager law) and environmental racism (Flint is majority-black, as are most cities that have been placed under an Emergency Manager). Simply put, she said, government officials didn’t listen to the people of Flint because they didn’t have to. Hanna-Attisha pointed out that lead water lines are a serious national issue across the country—the U.S. still has between six and ten million lead service lines and Chicago, in fact, has the largest number of any city in the country. Doctors, she explained, know there is no “safe” exposure level for lead—lead poisoning can manifest long after people first drink lead-contaminated water, showing up as neurological conditions, like learning disabilities, or joint and abdominal pain, among other serious symptoms.

During a pre-lecture Q and A, Hanna-Attisha explained her path from pediatrician to clean-water advocate and spoke about why more doctors should get out of the lab and into their communities. She told students to find their “why”—what gets them out of bed in the morning.

“For me,” she said, “it’s my kids in Flint.”