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'What The Eyes Don't See' In Flint


In late 2015, Michigan state officials admitted the drinking water in Flint was poisoned by lead. The city's move to switch the water supply to the Flint River was corroding pipes and leaching lead into the drinking water. And the public may never have known about any of it if not for the work of one local doctor. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician and researcher at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint. And over the course of several sleepless weeks, she went from knowing nothing about the city's water supply to becoming a whistleblower who scientifically proved that Flint's kids were being exposed to lead. She tells her side of the Flint story in a new book, "What The Eyes Don't See." And I wanted to know more about what that title means.

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: We literally cannot see lead in water. It's odorless. And it's tasteless. It's clear. We also don't see the consequences for years, if not decades, later. But this book is also beyond Flint. It's about the people, the places and the problems that we choose not to see. Flint was a forgotten city, neglected really for decades. But ultimately, this title is about the ability for all of us to see the problems that are right in front of us and to make a difference in our communities.

DAVIS: Why is lead so dangerous for children?

HANNA-ATTISHA: So lead is probably the most well-studied neurotoxins. We've known about its evilness, really, for centuries, yet we've continued to put it in industrial goods. It impacts children the most because that's when children's brains are developing. It impacts cognition, actually dropping IQ levels. It alters a child's entire life-course trajectory.

DAVIS: So you know this as a doctor. And you write in the book that you have your friend Elin (ph) over for dinner, and she's a water researcher, and she just kind of says to you, hey, you know what, you should really look at the water in Flint. And is it fair to say this sets you off on what I would call maybe a bit of a crusade?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely. It began a quest. So, yeah, I was at home, glass of wine in my hand, and my friend just happened to be a water expert, happened to be with the EPA. And she's the one that told me for the very first time that the water wasn't being treated properly and that there would probably be lead in the water.

DAVIS: So what did you do?

HANNA-ATTISHA: So I freaked out. So any pediatrician with a background in public health or environmental health, anybody who knows what lead does and knows some of our most vulnerable kids all over - not only in Flint but Detroit and Chicago and D.C. - some of our most vulnerable kids already had higher rates of lead exposure, just like our kids already did in Flint. So when I heard of the potential of, kind of, population-wide lead exposure in our drinking water, I freaked out. I had to see if that lead in the water was getting into the bodies of our children. So I conducted research. First, I tried to get that data from the state and from the county.

DAVIS: And the state and the county, at this point, are saying the water's fine. Drink it.

HANNA-ATTISHA: The water's fine. Literally saying, relax, that it meets all compliance guidelines. For 18 months they were reassuring the people of Flint, who heroically said, I think something's wrong with my water. You know, it tastes weird. It looks weird. The color is weird. But the state was saying everything was fine. And then I conducted probably the easiest research project I've ever done. And I just looked at children's lead levels over time. And what we saw was that children's lead levels, which we do part of routine screening, had increased.

DAVIS: And why was it so important to prove scientifically that lead levels were increasing in children?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah, so many people had been raising concerns - the moms, and the pastors and the activists. Journalists were saying something was wrong and reporting stories. There was even the science that there was lead in the water, but nobody was listening. So I felt that if I had proof of impact, proof that lead was getting into the bodies of our children, then hopefully something would change.

DAVIS: You write in the book - and it was a line that struck out to me because I thought, this must be the fear of every whistleblower. And you write, what if I told the truth, and no one listened?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah. And that was absolutely my fear. And it really kind of speaks to this larger climate of science denial. Like, Flint is a classic example of the denial of common-sense science. Like, we didn't have to have evidence that children's levels of lead were being elevated. You know, it could have stopped so much earlier. We knew early in the crisis, for example, that General Motors stopped using this water because it was corroding their engine parts. So I thought that these numbers would, you know, would change things.

DAVIS: And what was the impact? You unveil this data publicly, and there was change.

HANNA-ATTISHA: There was change. First, there was a denial. But then, within a couple of weeks, the state went back and relooked at their data and said, oh, actually, yes, we're seeing the same things.

DAVIS: Numbers don't lie.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Numbers don't lie. So my press conference was at the end of September of 2015. And by mid-October, amazingly, we were back on treated water.

DAVIS: I want to know more about how the Flint kids are doing. Has there been consequence to the fact that they were exposed to this water for a significant period of time?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah, I think it's the most common question I get is, how are Flint kids doing? And we are about to gather that data to objectively, in a population-level way, see how Flint kids are doing. But more than just monitoring the people of Flint, we have two brand-new child care centers. We have a doubling of home visiting programs. Every kid in Flint now gets a book mailed to them every month from the ages 0 to 5. We can't take away this exposure, but we are leaning on the incredible science of resilience and child development to limit the impact of this exposure.

DAVIS: You're a doctor, but you're also a mom. Would you let your kids drink the water in Flint today?

HANNA-ATTISHA: I would let them drink filtered water or bottled water. And that's not just in Flint. That is everywhere. What I have learned is that our national policies, our regulations that limit lead in water are weak.

DAVIS: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Her new book is "What The Eyes Don't See." Thanks for coming in.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.