Mona Hanna-Attisha: Resolve exposed Flint water crisis
Proving children were suffering elevated lead levels in the face of state denials led to a state and federal emergency
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was primed from the start for her heroic role in uncovering problems in Flint’s city water system that resulted in the lead poisoning of roughly 10,000 children.
The daughter of Iraqi-American scientists who fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship said her training and instincts compelled her to investigate and hold bureaucrats’ feet to the fire when they denied the results of her research that proved children were being poisoned.
State officials ignored residents’ angry insistence that their brown, improperly treated water was toxic after the city switched from the Detroit system’s Lake Huron water to Flint River water in April 2014 — but they couldn’t ignore Hanna-Attisha.
“When a pediatrician hears the word lead, we don’t sleep,” says Hanna-Attisha, director of pediatric residency at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint. “It’s a call to action because we know what it does, and we know what it can potentially do to our most vulnerable children.”
A graduate of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Hanna-Attisha conducted her own study that found the percentage of elevated blood lead levels among children in the city had doubled and announced the results at a press conference. State officials publicly attacked Hanna-Attisha and the credibility of her research, but she was undeterred.
“We very quickly shot back — we said we were right and they were wrong,” Hanna-Attisha says. “When it’s my kids that are at stake, I don’t give up.”
In late September 2015, state officials admitted Flint faced lead contamination, leading eventually to a state and federal emergency and apologies from some officials. Hanna-Attisha has since launched a multifront battle against the medical, mental and cognitive problems faced by lead-exposed children, along with state and county health officials and the MSU College of Human Medicine.
Hanna-Attisha credits her parents, Talia and M. David Hanna of West Bloomfield, with instilling the courage and sense of social justice that motivate her. Facing an oppressive Iraqi regime, the Chaldean family fled to America and settled in Royal Oak, where her father recently retired after more than 30 years at General Motors Co.
As president of the 1994 senior class at Royal Oak Kimball High School, Hanna-Attisha already displayed the fearlessness she’s known for in Flint, said her brother, Mark Hanna, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest lawyer.
“Whenever there was a fight, she’d actually get in there and stop the fight — she was famous for it,” Hanna says. “It wasn’t that she was the most popular kid, she was popular with every group.
“She was able to bring everybody together, and the solutions in Flint are going to (involve) everybody.”
Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD
Occupation: Pediatrician and director of pediatric residency, Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint
Education: Bachelor’degree, University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment; medical degree, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine; master’s degree, University of Michigan School of Public Health Health Management and Policy
Family: Married to Dr. Elliott Attisha; two children — Nina and Layla
Why honored: For uncovering Flint’s lead poisoning crisis and for uniting the community in an unprecedented recovery effort