A Pediatrician General Motors and the Flint Water Crisis

In 2014, Flint, Michigan was in deep trouble.

To save money, the city’s managers decided to shift the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

Soon after, citizens began complaining about the water that flowed from their taps.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at a local hospital, took state officials at their word and encouraged the parents and children in her care to continue drinking the water – after all, it was American tap water, blessed with the state’s seal of approval.

Turns out that the Flint River water was corroding the city’s lead based pipes – pumping lead into the drinking water supply. The state was in denial.

But the power brokers knew what the deal was. Dr. Mona’s job was to expose the truth and get help for her patients.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha lays out the details in a new book – What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City (One World, 2018).

In October 2014 – eight months before the first newspaper article was written about lead in Flint’s drinking water – General Motors stopped using the Flint water because it was corroding engine parts. GM knew there was a problem. The Flint water was corroding their engine parts. They switched over to the water that wasn’t corroding their engine parts.

“General Motors knew,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “When they switched over, they made the news. GM says – we noticed the corrosion in our infrastructure and we decided to switch. They knew what was going on. That is when the crisis should have ended. If they knew, and it was public, alarm bells should have gone off.”

Did GM know that the Flint water was corroding the leaded pipes and sending lead into the drinking water?

“I don’t know that. Many people believe they did. But they definitely knew that the water was corrosive and that corrosive water was corroding their manufacturing and their parts. They definitely knew that the water was corrosive. This is basic science. If it is corroding engine parts, what is it doing to our infrastructure that is lead based, throughout this distribution system? I can’t tell you if they knew about lead, but they knew about the corrosion.”

Dr. Mona’s father worked for GM as an engineer and one year was given the Boss Kettering award for innovation.

“As a child, all I knew of Kettering was that he was the most renowned General Motors engineer,” she says. “And we could not have been more excited when my dad, a GM engineer and researcher, received the highest GM engineering award – The Boss Kettering Award. To this day, that plaque is displayed on our mantel at home. Here is Kettering, the genius of GM, who put into play so many amazing inventions – that’s what I knew growing up.”

“Growing up, my father the engineer, always wanted me to be an engineer. He wanted me to go to Kettering University in Flint – the most renowned engineering school in the area. That is all I knew of Kettering until I started researching lead in gasoline.”

“I knew about lead in gasoline and lead in paint. I knew it was evil history. And the corporations responsible have yet to pay a price for that history – unlike tobacco or asbestos – the companies responsible for lead contamination have not paid the price.”

“But of any application of lead in history, lead in gasoline has poisoned the entire globe, has literally dumbed the world and caused morbidity and mortality.”

“In the 1920s, General Motors and Kettering invented tetraethyl lead. It was invented to solve the problem of engines knocking. At that time, there were alternatives. At that time, the evils of lead were well known. There were many reports of the adverse effects of lead. But GM had the power, they had the lobby. They had control of the Surgeon General at the time.”

“Despite valiant efforts to stop this, lead in gasoline was approved. It was marketed as a gift from God. There was so much manipulation. And it was put into place internationally. Some companies still use it. Iraq is one of the countries that still has lead in gasoline. And we still use lead in gasoline in jet fuel in smaller planes.”

“Alice Hamilton was a national leader in occupational health in the 1920s. She would visit factories in Chicago and other cities and see the effects of worker exposure to occupational chemicals. She became an expert on lead poisoning. She wasn’t a pediatrician. She was a general physician. But she established a well baby clinic. She understood the need for wraparound services for children and families. She is my absolute idol.”

“But she is my hero also because of the way she tried to stop Kettering and General Motors and their quest to put lead in gasoline. She would confront them. She would write articles, she pitched the stories to the media. At one conference, she called out Kettering and said – you are nothing but a murderer.”

“And this was in the 1920s. But despite her attempts and the attempts of others, they failed. The industry was too powerful. Kettering and General Motors ultimately got lead in gasoline. But she never gave up that fight.”

“She then went on to become the first female professor at Harvard University. There were three stipulations. She could not go to any football games. She could not march in the faculty procession. And she couldn’t go to the Harvard faculty lounge.”

You say in your book, in that year of 2014, when GM said it was corroding engine parts, you were telling patients – it is okay to drink the water.

“Of course. This is America. This is the 21st century. This is not 19th century London with a cholera epidemic. This is Michigan. We are literally next to the largest source of freshwater in the world. But even me, who is not naive to government, there are rules, regulations, people holding test tubes in their hands making sure our water is safe. Who doesn’t expect that when you turn on your tap, that your water is okay? And despite all of that, despite hearing reports of bacteria, cholera and odor – and all of these other things that came up since Flint switched its water source to the Flint River, everybody was telling us the water was okay.”

Let’s back up to the water switch, which happened to great fanfare in 2014. Why did Flint switch water supplies?

“In 2011, Flint lost democracy. We went under the control of state appointed emergency management because of our near bankruptcy. That emergency manager’s job was austerity. What can we do to save money with no regard to public health or children’s health? We had been buying water from Detroit – Great Lakes water – pure high quality Great Lakes water. But that was too expensive for this financially strapped city of predominantly poor and minority people.”

“In April of 2014, with a simple flip of a switch, we switched from the Great Lakes to the Flint River as a temporary measure until a new pipeline was to be built to the Great Lakes.”

Was that done to save money?

“That was done as a cost cutting move because the water from the Great Lakes was supposedly too expensive.”

Why would they say they would then move back when a new pipeline was built?

“A new pipeline would have been managed by our neighbor Genesee County and they said it would not have been as expensive as the water we were getting from Detroit to buy this water. This was all done as an austerity measure, to supposedly save money, to run government like a business.”

“And when you talk to water people about this, their eyebrows furrow. You never go from a high quality water source – the Great Lakes – to a low quality water source – the Flint River. That never happens.”

“In April 2014, that water switch happened. And right away, there were issues. There were color issues, odor issues, taste issues. Some of the first issues were rashes. Children would get a rash up to the water line when they were bathing. Hair loss. Then we had boil advisories because of bacteria in this water. There was e coli. People had to boil their water.”

“And in retrospect, if you have lead in water, the worst thing you can do is boil your water, it concentrates the lead in whatever you are boiling.”

“We had boil advisories. Then they added chlorine to try and kill the bacteria. People said they felt as if they were drinking water out of a swimming pool. Chlorine was good to kill the bacteria, but it irritated people’s skin and eyes. And then because there was so much chlorine, there were elevated levels of chlorine byproducts, specifically TTHM. It’s a carcinogen. It causes cancer. So for nine months we had safe drinking water violations because of these TTHMs.”

“There was one issue after another. After each issue was resolved, the state would say – all cleared. Everything was fine. Everything was in compliance. It was not until August 2015 that I hear about the possibility of lead in the water. It went public in July 2015 from the Guyette reporting. But that didn’t catch the public’s attention.”

When you heard about it, what was your thought?

“Disbelief, anger, sadness, that I failed, that I let my patients down. How did I tell a mother to use this water to mix their baby formula with? Pediatricians know what lead does. It is an irreversible neurotoxin. There is no safe level of lead. Lead is a form of environmental racism.”

Before the water crisis, how were they being exposed to lead?

“Legacy industrial and home based exposure. Lead paint is in these older, often run down homes. Kids eat paint chips. It gets in the dust. It’s in the soil. Lead in gasoline has left a legacy of lead in soil as well. And coupled with poor nutrition of these children in many of these urban environments, if you have an empty stomach, if you are deficient in certain nutrients, you absorb lead more readily. Our Flint kids already had lead exposure. And there are some areas of Detroit, where 20 percent to 30 percent of the kids have elevated lead levels. Same as areas of Philadelphia. It has to do with poor housing stocks, poor environments and poor nutrition.”

What was in the water of the Flint River that was corroding the lead based pipes?

“It was actually what was not in the water. Using the Flint River would have been okay. It would not have been easy to manage, but it would have been okay if it were treated properly. So people think it was the fault of the Flint River because it has this history of industrial pollution, it caught on fire twice. It wasn’t the fault of the Flint River. The problem was that the water was not treated with the necessary corrosion control ingredient. And that’s an ingredient that is used in water treatment to prevent the pipes from corroding.”

When the water was coming from the Great Lakes, was that being treated so that it wouldn’t corrode the pipes in Flint?

“Yes. The Water that was coming from Lake Huron was not only innately less corrosive, but it was also treated with corrosion control. When we switched to the Flint River, it was the perfect storm for the leaching of lead. The river water was more corrosive. It wasn’t being treated properly. It went through an aging infrastructure that has a lot of lead.”

“And then I want to touch on a fourth point. Before it was a crisis of quality, it was a crisis of affordability. The people of Flint were paying the highest water rates in the country. Think about that. One of the poorest cities in the nation was paying some of the highest water rates in the nation. If you are really poor, and if your water is really expensive, what do you do? You conserve water. You are not going to have your water running all of the time. That contributed to the problem. One way to get rid of lead in the water is to flush the water, to always run it. The people of Flint were not doing that because the water was so expensive. There were shut offs because people couldn’t pay their bills.”

“You had innately more corrosive water that wasn’t being treated properly. The water goes into an aging distribution system. The water wasn’t flowing because of that affordability issue. People just weren’t using a lot of water. And there was also not a lot of water use because our population had dropped. Flint’s population is half the size of what it used to be. Our water distribution system was built for a population twice that size. There was a lot of pooling and sitting of that water. And thus more contact of that corrosive water with the plumbing.”

The pivotal moment in the book is when you seek the blood tests of the kids in Flint to see what the blood lead levels are. You eventually get the blood tests and go public with the information. And that is what triggered the public response. What was the response when you went public? Was justice done?

“We will get to the justice part. That is in process and will take a long time.”

“I publicly shared the research that our children’s lead levels had increased after the water switch. And the move was an academic no no. Pediatricians, academics, physicians – we do not share research at press conferences. That was a form of academic disobedience. I recently received the MIT Disobedience Award because I did that, because I shared research before the traditional peer review process. But that process takes months. And our kids did not have another day.”

“We shared this research with some colleagues at my side. And the push back was immediate. I should have been prepared and I should not have been surprised. Everybody in the story who raised a concern about the water was dismissed and denied. The heroic moms, the activists, the journalists. And the pastors and the water scientists. Everybody who had tried to say something about this water had been attacked. Right away, after my research was public, my science, my credibility was attacked.”

Who was attacking?

“The state. Every arm of the state. The Governor’s office, the Department of Health and Human Services. And the Department of Environmental Quality of the water department. They said that I was slicing and dicing numbers, I was an unfortunate researcher, that I was causing near hysteria. Alice Hamilton was often called hysterical.”

“They said my research was not consistent with the state numbers. But blood lead monitoring is part of a surveillance system. The state had this data. They had a larger sample size. They knew what the children’s blood lead levels were. And they said that my research was not consistent with the data they had.”

Is there a movie in the works on this book?

“It was already optioned for a movie before the book was even written. A Palestinian American screenwriter, Cherien Dabis, she did the film Amreeka and other movies. Her father was a pediatrician. She contacted me early in the crisis. She said – I want to make a movie. And just like anybody else who contacted me back then I said –  go away, I am so busy. I am not interested in a movie or a book or anything else. She hired a scout to find out when I was going to write a book. I got a book deal, submitted the proposal. And it was optioned to become a movie. She is the screenwriter. Anonymous Content – they did the movie Spotlight – is the producer. I have no idea when or if it will happen. But it has been optioned.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 30(11). Monday July 23, 2018, print edition only.]

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