Six years ago, the term “environmental justice” hit the mainstream as the world learned about the tragedy unfolding in Flint, Michigan. The predominantly Black city was living through a water crisis—one that exposed nearly 100,000 people to lead, a neurotoxin. The children, however, had the most to lose. No level of lead exposure is safe for children.
The city’s people didn’t just stand by while their faucets ran brown. No, they spoke up and complained—even when leaders chose not to listen. Among them was Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor with Michigan State University’s Hurley Children’s Hospital. When she publicly announced her finding that her young patients were seeing elevated blood lead levels, the government response was swift.
But officials didn’t move to clean up the water; they rushed to deny Hanna-Attisha’s findings and question her credibility. Luckily, numbers don’t lie. As much as the state wanted to pretend the water was safe, it couldn’t ignore the science. Questions remain over who’s accountable for contaminating the city’s water supply with lead, but a civil trial began last month to answer them.
Over six years later, the world is now grappling with its own health crisis: COVID-19. The climate crisis is set to make public health scares the norm as diseases spread and heat waves make us sick. Flint, however, is better-equipped for all of that after living through a crisis of its own.
Welcome to The Frontline, where Hanna-Attisha has got the update. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. It’s Women’s History Month, so I got to thinking about the women I admire most. Hanna-Attisha sits at the top of that list. She’s got lots to share—on Flint, COVID-19, climate change, and the power of women.
The world was first introduced to you and your work when you alerted the public about the Flint water crisis. What is the update on Flint nowadays? Is the water finally safe? How are the kids holding up?
Our water is much better. It’s been in compliance with EPA criteria for about three years, but the most exciting thing is our lead pipes are pretty much all replaced. We are now joining a list of just a handful of other cities in this country that have replaced their lead pipes. But the most exciting part of that story is that what we did in Flint has now become a national model of how to deliver clean drinking water. We’ve definitely raised the nation’s consciousness on drinking water quality, lead, children’s health, environmental injustice, the consequences of disinvestment in public health, and the corrosion of democracy. There’s a long list of lessons that we’ve learned from Flint.
The most telling example is the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It calls for the replacement of the nation’s lead pipes. This is huge. This is because of Flint. This is the largest federal investment in water infrastructure and lead in water removal. We’re one of a handful of cities that have replaced their lead pipes, but that is going to exponentially increase over the next few years as city after city also remove the poison from their drinking water delivery. When Flint happened, our focus really shifted to make sure that no other community had to go through what Flint went through.
In terms of the kids, that’s how I continue to spend my every day: making sure our Flint kids have the brightest future possible. Our kids are amazing. They are also national leaders. When other water crises began to pop up throughout the country, our kids were working with these other communities. For example, Newark, New Jersey, had a very similar water crisis a couple years after us, and our Flint kids were Zooming with kids in Newark to tell them, This is what a part per billion is. This is what you should be asking for. This is how you sample lead in water. My work initiative has a group called the Flint Youth Justice League. It’s a group of amazing Flint kids who are advocates. This is work that’s being done in partnership with the impacted community to elevate them and produce the next generation of superstars who are going to tackle the big issues to come—like climate change.
My next question was going to be what you’ve been working on since the water crisis, but you’ve already answered that.
Yeah! We’re really leaning on the science of what kids need to be healthy and successful—be it nutrition, high-quality early education, mental healthcare, or trauma-informed services. There’s a lot that we have put in place to support the community. All of this is weaved together through an effort called the Flint Registry, which helps us identify folks who were exposed to the crisis so we can find out how they’re doing. More importantly, it’s about connecting people to all those awesome resources.
Lo and behold, when Flint was hit by this other public health crisis—as the world has been—we could lean on the public health infrastructure we had already built. Because what did people need during COVID? They needed emergency food. They needed enrichment for their children, especially when everything was closed. This speaks volumes to the need to proactively invest in public health. The work that we are doing is awesome, but it’s not rocket science. This work is basic, common sense. These are things that all families—all communities—need to be healthy, yet many throughout this country do not have.
I’m glad you brought up the pandemic because I think it shed light on the nationwide gap that remains in how we prioritize public health and emergency response. I’m curious to hear your thoughts, Mona, on how you see these issues of environmental justice and pollution connect to the larger crisis we now face with climate change?
Yeah, I think there are a lot of parallels and shared lessons that connect not only with the climate crisis, but also with the pandemic. Flint happened for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons was a failure of good governance. The leaders in charge did not value public health or children’s health. That’s what happened in Flint, and that’s what happened in the pandemic where we had a failure of governance. It’s also happened throughout time with climate change because of the failure of our global and national leaders to respect that science. That gets me to the second point: the failure to respect science and the consequence of science minimization and disinformation. Flint was an emblematic example of what happens when you disregard science and the voice of scientists.
The third parallel is this failure to invest in proactive public health infrastructure. We just do not do a good job keeping people healthy. Our nation, especially, is focused on sending money once people are already sick, which is healthcare. That’s very different from health. Keeping people healthy are things like stronger environmental protections, raising the minimum wage, universal childcare, and healthcare that’s not tied to your employment. With the pandemic, our public health capacity was not able to do timely surveillance to ramp up vaccines. Our health departments have been purposefully underfunded and under-researched for decades. When it comes to climate change, the same thing. We are failing to be preventative, leading us to be reactive, which is more costly and doesn’t work as well.
The last parallel is the role of equity and inequity—and justice and injustice. One of the positive ripple effects of Flint is that we put the phrase “environmental injustice” in the nation’s lexicon. People started talking about environmental injustice. It is not a new concept. It’s been around for decades. But after Flint, it became part of the national commentary. The pandemic has these raving inequities of who has been impacted. Once again, we know that climate change—just like all environmental problems—is inequitable. Different people bear the burden of climate change. Moving forward, we have to make sure that we have good governance. We have to elect leaders who value public health and science, who invest proactively in public health infrastructure, and who make it a priority to eliminate inequities. We’re seeing glimmers of that.
“Yes, this is a story of crisis, but it is so much more than that. It is a story of incredible resistance—and it is a story of so much hope.”
How has your work evolved to address some of these connections?
There definitely has been a broadening of my work, which really speaks to my background as both a pediatrician and public health expert. I coach our state Protect Michigan Commission, which is about vaccines. I had the privilege of testifying a couple of weeks ago for my fifth time before Congress about water infrastructure. Being an author has also given this message a broader audience. It’s amazing how many folks have read this book and realized the parallels. I wrote my book not to share what happened in Flint, but to share that there are Flints everywhere. All kinds of folks are now learning these lessons and learning how they apply to their own community. Being an author has this amazing ability to make a difference.
Yes, I love that book so much. And… as you know, It’s Women’s History Month.
How would you describe the role and the importance of women in the public health sector?
Yes! I think there’s a zillion examples of the power of women in leadership. If we look very acutely, there were studies that countries led by women leaders did so much better with COVID. We need to take moments like this to really celebrate the long-standing achievements of women in public health, environmental activism, and social change. One of the reasons I wrote my book was to pay tribute to so many women who’ve passed before me—whom I stand on the shoulders of. One of my favorites is Alice Hamilton, who went after the lead industry a century ago. She was the first woman professor at Harvard and this amazing woman scientist—one of so many over time that fought not only for their own kids but for communities of children. From Lois Gibbs to Erin Brockovich to LeeAnne Walters in Flint.
Just story after story of women who were brave and stood up to very powerful forces to protect. Oh my God, Rachel Carson! The list goes on and on.
If there was one woman you would say you admire most, who would it be?
Aww, can I say my mom?
Of course, you can!
My mom was a chemist, and she became a teacher. Just like so many other mothers, she instilled everything in her children to use science and the tools at their disposal to do good in the world. There are so many women that I’ve been honored to work with—so many amazing mentors and chairs and colleagues—but I think the OG, the original influence, would be my mom.
I love that. I always answer that question with my mom, too. It’s the best answer. Lastly, Mona, what do you want people to remember most about Flint and its children?
Oh, that’s a great question. Yes, this is a story of crisis, but it is so much more than that. It is a story of incredible resistance—and it is a story of so much hope. I want people not to remember the pictures of brown water, but I want people to remember what we did next. How we came together shoulder to shoulder to make sure that our kids had the brightest future but also to make sure that this didn’t happen again. I think, knock on wood, we’ve been able to accomplish so much of that.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity and length.