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Michigan Pediatrician Gives Update On Children's Health, One Year After Flint Water Crisis


The state of Michigan is considering testing the lead levels of all children between the ages of 9 and 12. Of course, tens of thousands of people in Flint, Mich., have been exposed to lead through tainted drinking water, and children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning. Parents and pediatricians in the community say they are still not getting the attention that they need. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is director of the Hurley Children's Hospital public health initiative. She was one of the first people to sound the alarm about the lead-tainted water supply in Flint and its danger to children. She joins us now.

Doctor, thanks for being back with us.


SIMON: We spoke with you last year. So much attention has been paid to Flint, perhaps never enough. Has there been much progress?

HANNA-ATTISHA: We're on our third year where our children still can't drink the water that comes out of our tap, so the water is not safe yet in Flint. And many people, you know, think it's - you know, it's not on the national news anymore. It must be fixed. The water must be safe, but baby steps in progress but still not the all-clear in terms of water safety.

And we really owe it to these kids. These kids did absolutely nothing wrong besides live in a poor city that, you know, was under state-appointed emergency management that didn't treat their water properly. So we have to really do everything for these kids to make sure that we don't see the consequences of lead exposure.

SIMON: What are you seeing in your young patients now?

HANNA-ATTISHA: By and large, children are resilient. So they are growing, and they are moving forward every day. But what you can think of it as, you know, they've gone through this really community-wide trauma. They feel betrayed. They are anxious. They feel guilty that they drank this water. And everything right now is being attributed to the water. You know, if I diagnose a kid tomorrow with attention deficit disorder, it was the water. If grandma gets early dementia, it was the water. If someone gets a rash, it was the water. So it's really hard to say what is from the water, what's not from the water.

So as pediatricians, what we do best is a lot of reassurance. And we're giving our families the tools they need to make sure that their development's going to be OK, so important education and resources regards to nutrition and early literacy and early intervention. And we have universal preschool and getting them connected to the resources they need so we don't see the consequences. Part of this initiative is to do that large-scale developmental assessment to follow these kids for the next 20 years or so. But our goal, really, is not to show you what lead does in five, 10, 15, 20 years but really to show you how we were able to kind of proactively intervene and to preserve these kids' development.

SIMON: You mentioned that the water is still out drinkable - safely drinkable after three years. We've reported that almost every resident seems to have some kind of water filtration unit. That's not enough, right?

HANNA-ATTISHA: You know, the filters - there are specific lead-clearing filters that have been distributed. They need to be installed properly, and they need to be maintained. So every few months, depending on your water use, you have to replace your cartridge, so it requires maintenance. And these filters don't readily install on all faucets, so a lot of families are still using bottled water.

SIMON: What would you like to see happen over the next year, Doctor?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, I'd like to see a continued investment in Flint. So to this day, Congress has given Flint zero dollars. We're very anxious with the new administration. We hope that we can get federal resources to mitigate the impact of this disaster. You know, this is unlike anything else that has hit our nation, unlike a flood or a hurricane where you largely can clean up from. This is something that we may have to be dealing with for, really, years to come. Yet we have not seen that investment for years to come to mitigate this.

So we really need that investment in infrastructure in our nation. We need to tighten the regulations for lead and lead in water. And we need to protect all children from a preventable neurotoxin that really affects not just Flint kids but Flint kids and Detroit kids and Chicago and Baltimore and Philadelphia kids. You know, if we really care about the future of this nation, we need to be investing in public health.

SIMON: Presidential debates were held in Flint. Presidential candidates visited Flint. But Congress still has not appropriated any federal money for Flint?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Flint has gotten a lot of attention, but that has not always come with additional resources. Congress has yet to give zero dollars for Flint. And because we were a man-made disaster, we were a federal emergency. We weren't a federal disaster, so that also did not free up significant federal funds. It's mind-boggling.

SIMON: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Hurley Children's Hospital public health initiative.

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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