Dr. Mona, as she is known in Flint, Mich., recounts her efforts to reverse the city’s water contamination in What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City (One World, June).
Your parents are from Iraq. What brought your family to the U.S. and Michigan?
My father was doing his PhD in Sheffield, England, where I was born. Around that time, friends, fellow dissidents, and political party members in Iraq were disappearing or being tortured or oppressed. And my parents realized that they could not go back. By then my paternal grandmother and several paternal uncles had already emigrated to the States, so we landed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
What is Flint like for the people who live there?
At one point, Flint had the highest per capita income in the country, and our population once far exceeded 200,000. Now it’s at less than 100,000, with about a 60% poverty rate. We have no grocery stores, one of the highest crime rates, one of the highest murder rates. A child who grows up in the Flint zip code lives 15 years less than a child in a neighboring zip code.
What drew you to Flint?
I came to Flint as a medical student, almost 20 years ago. I wanted to be in a really underserved area. I fell in love with the city and with the people. I got a glimpse of their incredible resilience and grit. I did my residency in Detroit at a children’s hospital, and stayed on faculty there. In 2011, I came back to Flint to lead the pediatric residency program.
How did you feel when county and state health officials downplayed the threat, and wouldn’t, at first, accept the results of your study that found high levels of lead contamination in Flint’s water supply?
These are folks who know about lead, who are public servants. Our tax dollars pay them to make sure our water is safe and that our public health is protected. And they just fell asleep on the job. I grew up knowing about governments that literally poisoned their populations. But this is America, a place that has a democracy, and these protections were put in place. So I personally had a significant loss of trust, but it’s only magnified for the people of Flint.
Could you tell me about your current work with public health projects to ameliorate Flint’s lead problem?
My clinic, which is atop a farmer’s market, gives every kid “nutrition prescriptions.” We have family-support programs, trauma-informed services, 24-hour mental health care. We just got a $15 million grant from the CDC to build a registry, which goes live this fall, to identify folks who were exposed, follow them long-term, and get them connected to the services we’ve been able to bring in to mitigate the impact of the exposure. The greatest gift we got from the federal government was expanded Medicaid, which expanded healthcare access for everybody exposed to the crisis.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this review included an incorrect reference that Hanna-Attisha's family had left Iran, not Iraq.