“One of my patients, a 2-year-old girl, recently came to the clinic for her checkup … Her mother turned to me, trying to hide her tears. She thought the water was safe, and why not? The authorities told her it was. She mixed her daughter’s baby formula with warm tap water. She got a filter only when the National Guard came to her door this year. Now she wonders, will her daughter be O.K.?”[1] 

Those are the words of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, from her recent piece in the New York Times, in which she describes the uphill battle Flint residents face as they deal with the effects of lead poisoning. Hanna-Attisha is the Flint pediatrician who led the charge in proving that Flint water was tainted by lead and was poisoning the community. Without her drive and dedication to the children of Flint, it is hard to say how long government officials might have left the public in the dark about the mounting crisis. In honor of Women’s History Month we’re recognizing Dr. Hanna-Attisha -- a doctor, mother, and activist -- who has relentlessly fought for the public interest. 

Dr. Hanna-Attisha is a practicing pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, but she took on a special project when she heard about Virginia Tech reports of Flint’s lead-tainted water. Virginia Tech had become involved with the crisis when a Flint resident, Lee-Anne Walters, called Virginia Tech professor and expert on water quality Marc Edwards, for his help.[2] His team tested Walters’ water and found shockingly high lead levels.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Hanna-Attisha was especially alarmed by the Virginia Tech report because of her familiarity with the damaging and irreversible effects of lead poisoning on children. With her patients’ past lead screening results readily available, she took on what she called “the easiest research project I have ever done,” and examined lead records from 2013 to 2015 to see if blood lead levels had increased.[3] She found that her patients’ lead levels had nearly doubled following Flint’s water-source switch to the Flint River.[3]

Dr. Hanna-Attisha knew she had a moral obligation to inform the public right away, so she went to the press while her findings were pending review.[3] Though they have now been published in a peer-reviewed journal, her investigation was initially met with fierce scrutiny. The state and their researchers denied the results and accused her of causing hysteria.[5] But she pressed forward and met with state researchers many times to compare data. Then, about a week after attacking her reputation, the state reversed course and admitted she was right. Only then did Governor Rick Snyder announce a plan to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water supply.[4] 

Now, Dr. Hanna-Attisha is turning to solutions and has become a relentless advocate for the cause. She’s fighting for important early intervention measures such as universal preschool, nutritional education, and health screenings.[5] “There’s no treatment, but there’s a lot of things we can put in place for these children,” she says.[5]

Dr. Hanna-Attisha has weathered harsh criticism for going against the status quo, but has continued to show dedication to children’s health in the face of the crisis, and has given a voice to her struggling community. This Women’s History month, we honor her perseverance in fighting for public health -- and specifically children’s health -- despite the resistance she faced from critics and state officials who disputed her data. She reminds us that one person can make a difference, and that no one should stand idly by in the face of injustice. We’ll leave you with this concluding quote from Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s New York Times piece:

“As she reaches for my stethoscope again, I tell her mom that she is going to be O.K. No, she’ll be great. With the nation’s help, we will heal. Because we are not a nation that can accept 11,846 parts per billion of lead in drinking water. Or the consequences for the children of Flint.”[1]

[1] The New York Times, "The Future of Flint's Children," 3/26/2016.

[2] The Detroit News, "Virginia Tech Expert helped expose Flint water crisis," 1/24/2016.

[3] DemocracyNOW, "Flint Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha on How She Fought Gov't Denials to Expose Poisoning of City's Kids," 1/15/2016.

[4] CNN, "Flint water crisis timeline: How years of problems lead to lead poisoning," 3/3/2016.

[5] CNN, "'Our mouths were ajar': Doctor's fight to expose Flint's water crisis," 1/22/2016.