We all read the headlines, horrified not only by the high lead levels found in children in Flint, Michigan, but also by the extent to which government officials who are supposed to protect the public apparently concealed the harm. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center, is a public health hero and an inspiration to all of us who strive to improve early childhood systems so all children can reach their full potential. I am thrilled to feature Dr. Mona as a keynote speaker at the 10th annual Help Me Grow National Forum in Buffalo.We can all learn from her resiliency in exposing a public health crisis that local and state officials denied for months. We can also learn from her determination to turn a crisis into a call for change.
Dr. Mona was courageous to research the impact a suspected problem with lead in Flint’s water was having on children back in 2015. She was even more courageous to speak out about her findings at a time government officials tried to discredit her information. Her research revealed that blood lead levels of children in Flint doubled after the city switched its water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River in April 2014. The American Journal of Public Health published those findings. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the findings during its own investigation and published the results in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
Nearly 10,000 children younger than age 6 lived in the Flint area at the time of the contamination, and already suffered from housing inequities, municipal bankruptcy, underfunded public schools and other injustices that so many in the state chose not to see.
The water crisis compounded an already existing problem. Because of it, children exposed to the contaminated water may face developmental, behavioral and other challenges that could affect them not only in the short term, but also throughout their entire lives. Had Dr. Mona not spoken out, who knows how much higher the affected children’s blood lead levels would have risen or how many more children may have been harmed by a crisis that never should have happened.
Since revealing her life-saving research, Dr. Mona has published a book titled What the Eyes Don’t See. Time Magazine named her as one of its Most Influential People in 2016. In addition, the New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS News Hour, CNN, Michigan Public Radio and numerous other media outlets covered her story.
As part of her advocacy, Dr. Mona launched the Pediatric Public Health Institute, which is a partnership between Hurley Medical Center and Michigan State University, to address the lead crisis in Flint and to help ensure the best outcomes for the children who were exposed. In addition, she created the Flint Child Health and Development Fund to support proven interventions that support children’s potential.
In an interview with Chelsea Clinton, Dr. Mona talked about her realization that the problem in Flint was a long-term crisis and discussed her drive to affect positive change because of what happened. In Flint, such changes include enhanced access for children to high-quality preschool, literacy programs, and health care. Even more inspiring is Dr. Mona’s call for change around the country, as there are no doubt potential Flint’s elsewhere with families suffering the same discrimination and injustices that existed in that city prior to the crisis.
Such systemic issues have primed the well for this type of catastrophe to occur and must be addressed through interventions far beyond Flint. We must no longer turn a blind eye. As Dr. Mona recognizes, the interventions put in place after the Flint crisis are the same ones that could benefit children elsewhere. At Help Me Grow National Center, we share Dr. Mona’s optimism that we can and must achieve better outcomes for all children. The earlier we identify and address developmental and behavioral concerns, the better off children will be. We can and must do more to help at-risk children succeed.
As a popular quote often referenced by Dr. Mona states, “The eyes don’t see what the mind doesn’t know.” Because of Dr. Mona’s light shining not only on the water crisis in Flint, but on so much more, there is now a critical mass eager to make substantive and lasting change. We must turn anger and outrage into action. As Dr. Mona reminds us, we cannot fix an unseen problem. Instead, we must open our eyes to the struggles faced by at-risk children and bring about a better future for all.
Kimberly Martini-Carvell is the executive director of the Help Me Grow National Center and the Associate Director for Capacity Building, Organizational Learning, and Professional Advancement at the Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.