Dismissed and discredited by government officials and scientists when she presented scientific evidence of a public health crisis in Flint, Mich., six years ago, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who immigrated to this country as a very young child, began to doubt herself.
“State officials [said] I was wrong, unfortunate and even hysterical, which has been thrown against many strong women over time, and for a quick minute, I regretted using my voice,” she said. “I began to second guess myself. I was scared; I felt defeated; and I felt absolutely tiny.”
However, Hanna-Attisha told the Oct. 21 virtual Common Hour audience, her self-doubt as “a small, brown immigrant woman going against really powerful forces” was brief. She instead focused her physician’s concern on the health and well-being of the community she served.
“Those thoughts were quickly replaced with the realization that this had nothing to do with me; they could go after me all they want,” she said. “This had everything to do with my kids, my Flint kids. Every number in my research was not just a number; every number was a kid.”
“Dr. Mona,” as she prefers to be called, likely cared for some of those children, victims of the state government’s 2014 decision to switch their drinking water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, which served the automobile industry for decades.
“It was almost as if those kids jumped out of my spreadsheets, pushed me forward, lifted me up, and gave me the courage to keep going, to fight back, to speak up against the system that wanted me to stay quiet,” Hanna-Attisha said.
Pediatrician, professor, public health advocate and activist, Hanna-Attisha exposed Flint’s water crisis in 2015, after research indicated that the Flint River leached lead from domestic water pipes. A subsequent study found that lead levels in pediatric blood samples had approximately doubled since the switch in drinking water sources.
Once the government eventually acknowledged the crisis and took long-delayed action providing bottled water, replacing corrosive pipes, installing filters and ensuring the community is well-informed, water quality improved and lead levels began to decrease, she said.
Hanna-Attisha is a first-generation Iraqi immigrant, born in England to scientists who had fled Saddam Hussein’s regime. She wrote about her struggle to warn the government in “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.” It was named one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018.
The physician is the 2020-21 Mueller Fellow, Franklin & Marshall’s 40-year-old fellowship that was established by the Mueller family to bring distinguished national speakers to the College for conversations with the campus community.
Her efforts and courage have earned her international recognition – one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in 2016 and one of the 10 Outstanding Young Americans of 2016 – and many awards including the 2016 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling and the Rose Nader Award for Arab American activism by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
During the conversation period after her talk, Hanna-Attisha addressed a question of trust in government.
“We should never blindly have trust in anything,” she said. “We should all have a healthy dose of mistrust. … I think that’s the lesson for all of us.”