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How Lead Poisoning Was Discovered in Flint’s Water

The toxic water supply in Flint, Michigan, which exposed up to 42,000 children under 2 years of age to lead poisoning, was a major media story a few years back. Ingestion of high dosages of lead, particularly among infants, results in cognitive impairment, attention and mood disorders, and aggressive behavior. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s account of that urban man-made disaster reads both as a detective story and as an exposé of government corruption in her book “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.”

She brings the reader along as she uncovers Flint’s calamity within the context of her experience as a Christian Iraqi immigrant living in one of America’s poorest cities. Flint, the eighth-largest “majority-minority” city in the U.S. (57 percent black, 37 percent white), is where a kid born will live 15 years less than one born in the neighboring communities.  As a pediatrician working at Flint’s Hurley Hospital, one of the few public hospitals left in the country, her advocacy was driven by its  “mandate to serve the community above all.”

Although she had been an environmental activist in college, her story reveals how even the most vigilant of us must recognize that “the eyes don’t see what the mind doesn’t know.” She begins her journey blithely comforting her patients’ concerns about the quality of their drinking water: “The tap water is just fine.”

Her concerns only surface when she found out, by chance, that when Flint had to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to lower its costs, government agencies were not properly checking for lead in the water supply. Her fellow health advocate, Marc Edwards, a self-described conservative Republican and civil-engineering professor from Virginia Tech, explained to her that even though the federal law required proper inspections, “The EPA and the states work hand in hand to bury problems.”

Hanna-Attisha struggled to get the attention of the authorities after the switch. The county’s health-department representative tells her that lead in the water was not a concern of theirs, only lead from paint chips and dust. Even an EPA manager, who issued a report to
his supervisors that he found high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply, was reprimanded and labeled “a rogue employee.” However, something was obviously wrong. Just six months after the water switch, General Motors got a government waiver to go back to using Lake Huron water. The company noticed that its engine parts were being corroded after the switch.

At the core of the government’s unresponsiveness, according to the doctor, is a breakdown of our democracy. Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder supported a law that allowed him to appoint powerful emergency managers (EM) of cities whose budgets were deeply in debt. The EMs were accountable to the governor, not local governments, to pursue strong austerity measures. Because it was too costly, Flint’s EM rejected the city-council vote to go back to Detroit’s water supply due to consumer-health complaints.

The most effective countervailing force was the ability to collect blood-sample data, which the media could then inform the general public. Through repeated requests and the support of dedicated professionals, Hanna-Attisha was able to acquire scientifically reliable data, which the Flint Journal and Detroit Free Press released. It was only then that Flint’s mayor was forced to issue a health advisory about lead in the water. The government agencies, which had resisted addressing lead in Flint’s drinking water, finally succumbed to citizen activism and the exposure from a free press, and had to admit that there was a serious health problem.

As the doctor concludes, “If we stop believing that government can protect our public welfare … what do we have left?” Her book’s message is that we each have the power to fix things, to make the world safer by opening one another’s eyes to problems. Her book reinforced my belief that the first step to becoming a citizen activist is seeing the world as it should be, not as it is given to you.

This review originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

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