Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha remembers the exact moment she suspected there could be a lead problem for the residents of Flint, Michigan.
She was at a dinner party in August 2015 when a friend told her that the city, where Hanna-Attisha has been a pediatrician since 2011, wasn’t using the proper corrosion control in their water-supply source after it switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in April 2014.
Immediately after the switch residents throughout the city started to complain of rashes and how their water was brown and the taste was unbearable. But what alarmed Hanna-Attisha the most was that the city had lead-based plumbing.
“As a pediatrician, when you hear anything about lead, we act. We know lead,” she tells PEOPLE. “It is a well-known potent neurotoxin.”
After she was unable to get the county’s records of lead levels in Flint, Hanna-Attisha, who runs the Hurley Children’s Clinic, decided to take matters into her own hands and do the research herself.
“First we collected data of just our clinic patients because our clinic has the highest volume of patients in the city,” says the mom of two girls. “We saw this increase in the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels. I wasn’t surprised by the data, but I was absolutely heartbroken. This was entirely preventable.”
Lead is known as the silent pediatric epidemic, because the symptoms from the exposure are only seen years later, she says.
After Hanna-Attisha saw that the lead levels in babies and children up to age 6 (the most vulnerable to the debilitating effects of lead poisoning, including nerve damage, cognitive issues and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity) had doubled—even tripled in some areas, she knew she had to do everything in her power to help them.
“I rolled up my sleeves because we owe it to these kids. We had to do everything we could to mitigate this exposure,” she says. “We can’t take it away, it’s irreversible, but from the moment on that we knew the data my focus became their tomorrow.”
A Promising Future
Hanna-Attisha helped form the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, dedicated to improving the health of Flint‘s 20,000-plus children.
She also opened an early-childhood center where local kids and their families receive nutrition and healthcare services — and raised $20 million in the process. “It’s amazing we’ve done this in just one year,” she says.
“We’re seeing these mental health issues related to the stress of the water and the crisis. The stress of not knowing where to get their water every day, the anxiety of not knowing what their future holds, the guilt of giving their children this water,” she continues. “Think of it like PTSD for an entire community.”
Flint Mother, Gina Luster, says Hanna-Attisha is more than just a hero in their city.
“Dr. Mona is a really important part in this whole entire Flint water disaster,” says the mom of 9-year-old Kennedy. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far if we couldn’t prove that there was something wrong with our babies.”
What she admires most about Hanna-Attisha is her presence in the community.
“She’s not this myth or this superhero that people only hear about in the movies. She’s at the farmers’ market, she’s taking pictures, she’s at meetings,” says Luster, whose daughter started to show symptoms when she was 5 years old. “That’s really, really a big plus for me. That’s the icing on the cake. She’s not hiding out like a lot of these jokers around her.”
While families are still required to drink bottled water and put filters on their kitchen faucets, the city has come a long way since the lead exposure began. This past December, the U.S. Congress approved more than $100 million in legislation, some of which will go to rebuild Flint‘s drinking-water infrastructure.
“How do I best preserve their tomorrow? What can we do to make sure we don’t see the consequences of this exposure?” asks Hanna-Attisha. “That’s how I get to my spend my every day. It’s amazing. We hope to never see the consequences of this.”