IOWA Magazine | 03-04-2019

Lessons from Flint

The researcher who revealed the Flint water crisis shares her story with the UI College of Public Health.
Glass of Water Illustration

Flint, Michigan, was once the embodiment of the American dream. The birthplace of General Motors, the city offered the promise of living wages, good schools, accessible health care, and pension plans.

But by 2015, that dream had become as murky as the drinking water running from the city's taps. That's the year that Mona Hanna-Attisha—a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University—released the results of a pivotal study proving Flint's children were being exposed to dangerous amounts of lead in their water. Today, the crisis serves as a case study in governmental failure, and Hanna-Attisha—who rallied aid for Flint with her advocacy—continues her crusade to hold the powerful accountable, serve as a voice for working-class families, and lead the effort to rebuild the city's once flourishing dream.

In conjunction with the UI's American Dream theme semester, Hanna-Attisha will speak this month at the UI College of Public Health. The college selected Hanna-Attisha's new book, What the Eyes Don't See, as its annual book club title. Public health students received a free copy of the book at the start of the semester, and faculty are incorporating it into their curriculums.

Hanna-Attisha spoke to Iowa Magazine ahead of her visit to Iowa City, where she'll hold a public lecture and meet with small groups of students and faculty. Here are the highlights, edited for length and clarity.

How meaningful is it to know your book is being studied at the UI and other universities?

To be able to share this story and have others learn from it in hopes they can do similar work has been absolutely inspiring. In my head when I was writing this book, the audience was students—medical students, public health students, undergrads, and high school students—so they could take up these lessons.

The title of the book, What the Eyes Don't See, is about the people and places and problems all over that we choose not to see. It's about the power that we all have within us to open our eyes and to not only be awake and alert, but to act when we see things that aren't right.

In your book you write that there are Flints everywhere. What do you mean by that?

The story of Flint is what happens when you take away democracy. Flint was an egregious example—the city had lost its democracy and was under the control of emergency management. But it's not isolated to Flint. Throughout the country, there are people who are predominantly poor and of color who are disproportionately burdened by environmental issues.

Flint is the story of crumbling infrastructure and what happens when we disrespect science. It's a "today" story in terms of the denial of climate change and the regulations that protect our air and water quality. And it's the story of how everyday people said, "We don't accept the status quo" and spoke up and made a difference in their community.

How is Flint doing today?

We've made tremendous progress. Flint's pipes are almost completely replaced, which is phenomenal. It'll be only the third city in the country to have replaced its lead pipes. In terms of children's issues, where I spend my day, we've done amazing work. We're building a model public health program to mitigate the impact of this crisis and promote the development of children. We have things like new childcare centers, literacy support, school health services, mobile grocery stores, and Medicaid expansion. What we hope to do, and what we already are doing, is share our best practices with other cities where children are suffering from very similar toxicities.

Out of our darkest hour, Flint has set a path forward and built this model program so that we won't be remembered for this crisis and terrible tragedy, but be remembered for our recovery.

Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha appears on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore during the Flint water crisis.
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WHAT: A free public lecture by pediatrician, activist, and author Mona Hanna-Attisha

WHEN: 7–8 p.m., March 25, 2019

WHERE: Callaghan Auditorium in the College of Public Health Building, 145 N. Riverside Drive, Iowa City

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