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Pediatrician Who Spotlighted Lead In Flint Water Weighs In On Crisis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Two counts of willful neglect of duty - those are the charges against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and former Flint, Mich., public works director Howard Croft for their role in the Flint water crisis. The misdemeanor charges carry a punishment of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail. They come almost seven years after the city of Flint began taking in water from the Flint River in an attempt to save money. The water wasn't properly treated. It corroded the city's aging pipes, causing lead to leach into the drinking water. More than 100,000 Flint residents were exposed to unsafe levels of lead. LaTricea Adams is a community activist in Flint. This was her reaction to the charges against Snyder and Croft.

LATRICEA ADAMS: It doesn't feel good.

MARTIN: Adams heads Black Millennials for Flint, which advocates for the rights of Flint residents still dealing with the effects of the water crisis.

ADAMS: Accountability is great, but even with accountability, even if Rick Snyder was behind bars for a significant amount of time, that still doesn't compensate for the generations of irreversible damage that is and will continue to happen with Flint residents.

MARTIN: Years ago, sometime after the city of Flint switched to Flint River water, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha started seeing something troubling. She treated a lot of children in Flint, and her patients were showing twice the normal amount of lead in their blood since the change in the water supply. She called a press conference in September of 2015 and warned residents, especially kids, to stop drinking the water. More than five years later, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is now the director of Flint's pediatric public health initiative, and she joins us this morning. Thanks for being here.

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Rachel, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: Can I ask you to take us back to that moment when you started to realize something was wrong? What was going through your mind?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Oh, I remember the exact moment. It was the summer of 2015. I was actually with a high school girlfriend who, of all things, had become a drinking water expert. And she told me in my house at a last-minute barbecue that, Mona, the water isn't being treated properly in Flint. And because of that, there's probably lead in the water. And that's the moment that my life changed. When I heard the word lead, it was a call to action. I respect the science of what lead does. I understand it's a potent, irreversible neurotoxin. And I also understand that lead's a form of environmental racism. It's the last thing our kids in Flint needed. That's the moment I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I lost about 30 pounds. And I began this quest to find out if that lead was getting into the bodies of our children.

MARTIN: Which it was. I mean, so now here we are seven years later, it's hard to believe, these charges now against the former governor and another top official. What do you make of it?

HANNA-ATTISHA: It's a bit of disbelief. It's been so long. And for so many people in Flint, this justice delayed really felt like justice denied, that there was never going to be this level of accountability. And as a physician in Flint, I never used to really kind of respond to these questions of accountability and justice. There was these criminal cases and civil cases. And as I began to practice more in Flint and interact with the families of Flint, I began to understand how critical and foundational the concept of accountability and justice really is to health and healing. Because without that to happen, it's almost like a wound that never close, and it stays open and open and open. And it's been open for about seven years. And having some level of justice is like a salve. It helps those wounds finally close, and it helps the city and the people move on and recover.

MARTIN: You've written a book, and in it, you talk about the villains in this crisis as being more than a single person, more than one individual. Can you explain how you see that?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely. So, you know, so many people ask me, like, who do you want in jail or who should go to jail? And there's not one villain. There's not 10 villains. There's many villains. And this is what I say in my book. I say there are lots of villains in this story. A disaster of this scale does not happen completely by accident. Many people stopped caring about Flint and Flint's kids. Many people looked the other way. People in power made tragic and terrible choices, then collectively and ineptly tried to cover up their mistakes. While charges have been brought against some of the individuals who are culpable, the real villains are harder to see because the real villains live underneath the behavior and drive it. The real villains are the ongoing effects of racism, inequality, greed, anti-intellectualism and even laissez faire neoliberal capitalism. And these are the villains that we don't usually notice and don't want to, and these are the villains that poison Flint with policy. And I hope one day we can go after these systemic villains and bring forth justice.

MARTIN: What is - what could that possibly look like now? I mean, even as you nod to the positive effect of these charges, where do you begin that larger level of healing and reconciliation to try to address some of those huge issues?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah, and that has been my work since day one. From the moment of recognizing kind of this widespread lead contamination, this population-level trauma and this broken trust, our work has been in a very holistic way to mitigate the impact of the crisis and bring forth healing and recovery. You can think of what happened in Flint as a case of science denial and our science helps speak truth to power. And we're leaning on that incredible science of child development and what kids and families need to bring forth healing and recovery. So what that looks like right now are these long-term interventions to support Flint families, like child care, like Medicaid expansion, like literacy support, like nutrition access - all of these critical ingredients to keep families healthy, including things like behavioral health services and trauma-informed care. Because what Flint was, by and large, was this population-level trauma. And people to this day are stressed and angry, and they feel guilt and they feel betrayed by the folks that were out there to protect them.

MARTIN: Would the crisis have happened had Flint been a white suburb instead of a predominantly Black city?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Of course not. Flint is this egregious example of environmental injustice. It never would have happened in a richer, whiter community. There's a long history of racism in Flint, and it was also perpetuated during this crisis.

MARTIN: You, as the director of the initiative to mitigate the impact, tell us where your focus is in just a couple of seconds remaining.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Sure. My focus is to make sure that the kids of Flint have the brightest future possible, that we not only recover but thrive after this crisis, and that we can share our best practices with so many other communities where children are suffering from the same sort of injustices.

MARTIN: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha - she's a pediatrician, the one who first called attention to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., all those years ago. She's the author of the book "What The Eyes Don't See: A Story Of Crisis, Resistance, And Hope In An American City."

Thank you so much for talking with us.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "BORDER MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.