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Flint doctor: Eden Wells ‘responsive’ on lead crisis

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — The Flint pediatrician who exposed the Flint water crisis on Tuesday praised state Medical Executive Eden Wells as accessible, “professional and responsive” while state health department superiors were “attacking” the doctor’s research on elevated lead levels in children’s blood.

In surprise but anticipated court testimony that was part serious and part jovial, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Hurley Medical Center said it was Wells who loosened the logjam of information on lead statistics when recalcitrant officials at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services were delaying and often ignoring her requests.

Following the pediatrician’s news conference in 2015 detailing lead levels in Flint’s children, Wells asked, “How did you do your research?” Hanna-Attisha testified in 67th District Court.

“So whenever I emailed, she (Wells) was always replying,” Hanna-Attisha said, adding it was often late at night and that they shared a similar work ethic. “Before this crisis exploded, it was frustrating because there was a lot of 9-to-5ers, no response from a lot of people. This is a serious issue. This is a public health crisis, why are you not getting back to me.”

Referring specifically to Wells, she said, “I always found her to be responsive. And if she didn’t know something, she’d try and connect me to people who did.”

Wells is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter, lying to a special police agent and obstruction of justice regarding the 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area that killed 12 people and sickened at least 79 others. After short morning testimony from Dr. Paul Kilgore of Wayne State University, prosecutors rested their case before Judge William Crawford II.

Wells also presented a channel for later influencing state officials to listen and learn to local officials, Hanna-Attisha said.

“So I am grateful that she was able to look at the information, look at the data, and to realize that we have a problem,” the pediatric specialist said. “If it were not for her actions, it would have gone on for much longer, the attacks and the denials.”

Hanna-Attisha said she made a “fuss” when Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon said only 43 kids had “elevated lead levels after Oct. 1,” 2015.

The doctor’s inexperience on the stand was at times palpable: While waiting on questions from defense attorney Steve Tramontin and Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, Hanna-Attisha would show expressions from smiles to bewilderment.

In an exchange with Flood, he mentioned that he looked up her YouTube videos. Her response: “Awesome.”

“Quite a few, isn’t there?” he asked.

“Viral,” she responded, drawing courtroom laughter.

As she exited the courtroom following her testimony, Hanna-Attisha turned to the judge and courtroom and bellowed, “Thanks for having me, guys.”

But during her testimony, Hanna-Attisha criticized the state’s takeover of Flint with an emergency manager after the city ran into financial problems.

“Flint had no democracy. Money was the bottom line,” she said.

Hanna-Attisha said it “is difficult to prove” that the lead-contaminated water caused problems in children, but it’s “very, very, very strongly correlated.”

Hanna-Attisha examined 1,746 test results from Flint children in 2015, compared them with earlier results when Flint drew water from Lake Huron and found the percentage of kids with above-average lead levels had nearly doubled. In certain areas, it tripled.

Hanna-Attisha said “for a moment I felt good” about making her findings public, but state regulators from the Department of Environmental Quality and others insisted the water was safe and attacked the study.

“The DEQ ... called my work unfortunate,” she testified, “that I was causing mass hysteria. The MDHHS mentioned that this was not consistent with their data.”

The state eventually relented, and Gov. Rick Snyder in October 2015 appeared in Flint to announce that the city would reconnect to the Detroit area water system.

After a gubernatorial task force found in December 2015 that the state Department of Environmental Quality was responsible for the lead-contaminated water, Snyder apologized to Flint residents. Snyder’s DEQ director Dan Wyant and DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned.

Hanna-Attisha said she was first told about the issue by a high school girlfriend who happened to be a water expert.

“She informed me at the time that corrosion control wasn’t being used in the Flint water,” the pediatrician said. “And I was clueless.”

The kids in Flint, she said, already had “higher lead levels” in the impoverished city “so when I heard there was lead, I freaked out.” High lead levels can lead to anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hanna-Attisha met with Genesee County officials to express her concerns, but “they didn’t have the ability to look at children’s lead levels.”

So she went to the state, she said, and began to look at the blood lead levels in children at her Hurley Medical Center clinic.

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