Michigan Doctor Who Helped Expose Lead Crisis Honored By Heinz Family Foundation

Sep 14, 2017

The Heinz Family Foundation has announced the winners of this year’s Heinz Awards, which honor people who are breaking barriers in their fields and making a global impact.

Among the honorees is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose work exposed widespread lead poisoning in the children of Flint, Mich. in 2015. Hanna-Attisha said she plans to donate her $250,000 in prize money to initiatives protecting the health of children in Flint.

Previous recipients of the award include Dr. Herbert Needleman, whose groundbreaking research showed that exposure to lead can lower a child’s IQ.

90.5 WESA’s Liz Reid spoke with Hanna-Attisha about her work and the role of water authorities in protecting public health.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

LIZ REID: What led you to begin investigating the issue of lead in drinking water in Flint?

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: It happened by accident. I was at home with a high school girlfriend, she's a drinking water expert, used to work at the EPA and she alerted me to the possibility of lead in the water. So that really prompted me to dig deeper to see if that lead in the water was getting into the bodies of our children. So I looked at children's lead levels, looking to see if there was a change from before the water switched to after the water switch. And what we saw was yes, there was lead in the water, that water was getting into the bodies of our children, and it really for 18 months or we had population wide lead in water exposure.

REID: So when you are doing this work, when you are looking at this data what are you doing this like on your own time?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely on my own time and I've gotten great questions like, “Who funded your work? How big was your research team?” Nobody funded this work. My research team was me and another young mom. So this was hours and hours of around the clock work. I don't think we really slept for about two three weeks straight trying to figure out what was going on with our children.

REID: What kind of work are you doing now in Flint around the lead issue?

HANNA-ATTISHA: This is why I think this recognition is so amazing, because this recognition for the Heinz Award recognizes the work that I did to uncover the crisis. But the beauty of this recognition is that it also noted the work that we're doing right now. So, we are actively turning the story for our children. There is no cure for lead poisoning. There is no magic pill, there is no antidote. But we are building a model public health program, wrapping our children around with evidence based interventions to mitigate the impact of this crisis and promote their development. So, currently I lead an initiative called the pediatric public health initiative. It's a partnership between Michigan State University and Hurley Children's Hospital to improve the lives of Flint children. So we have put in place working with many community partners things like universal preschool, early literacy support – every kid in Flint gets a book mailed to them every month – home visiting programs, family support services, mental health services. We have Medicaid expansion, nutrition prescriptions in our clinic. Lots of evidence based interventions that we know promote children's development that all kids need to make sure that our kids not only turn out OK, but turn out really better than OK.

REID: We've had our own share of struggles with lead in our water here in Pittsburgh. In 2016, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority notified customers that it had exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion of lead in the water. It was at 22 parts per billion at that time. In 2013, the last time PWSA was required to do compliance testing it was at 14.8 parts per billion, so just shy of the EPA action level. And at that time no public alarm was sounded. I've yet to uncover any evidence that PWSA or the city treated that level like it was a problem or a potential threat to public health. I'm curious, in your opinion, is that negligent? To not address it as a problem when it's just below the EPA action level and to wait another three years to do compliance testing?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely negligent. And I think what Flint has taught us is that gaping holes in lead in water regulations. Lead in water is regulated by something called the Lead and Copper Rule, which is out of date and which is not health-based. That 15 parts per billion action level has nothing to do with health. That level should be zero. Water utilities need to understand that their job is public health. It is not minimal compliance. It is public health and to ensure the maximum protection of public health.