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Doctor Who Discovered Children Had Elevated Lead Levels Talks About What's Changed


You probably remember the Flint water crisis that came to light a few years ago. Thousands of Flint residents were exposed to lead-tainted water when state officials changed the city's water source. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was one of the first people to call attention to the negative health effects of Flint River water, specifically how children exposed to the drinking water were showing high levels of lead in their blood.

This week, she was honored with the Heinz award for bringing the problem to light but also for her work to establish care and support for the children and families affected by lead exposure. The award also comes with a $250,000 cash prize. Dr. Hanna-Attisha joins us now from the Hurley Children's Hospital in Flint to give us an update on Flint's water crisis. Dr. Mona, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Michel, it's great to be with you again.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, congratulations on this honor.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you. It's surreal. It's absolutely humbling. I still can't believe it.

MARTIN: We've been coming to you for the past couple of years for updates on this. Where are we now? I mean, first of all, is the water in Flint safe to drink now?

HANNA-ATTISHA: We are on our fourth year where the water is still not safe to drink. It's getting better. But the people of Flint must continue to use filters. And they must continue to use bottled water. So we are still very much in the middle of this crisis.

MARTIN: Do we know what it would take to make the drinking water safe?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah. So the drinking water is getting better. And the pipes are being replaced. However, the pipes will not be replaced until about 2020. When that happens, Flint will only be the third city to have replaced all their lead pipes.

So whenever a pipe replacement or an infrastructure work is happening, it increases the risk of lead exposure. It disrupts that lead scale that's in the pipes. And that's one of the most important reasons that people now need to continue using their filters and bottled water because of the massive infrastructure work.

And part of the replacement is also restoring trust. Many people don't trust the water that's coming out of their taps. And they will only trust it when they actually can physically see that the pipe has been changed.

MARTIN: Well, when we last spoke to you, you've pointed out really early on that lead is an irreversible neurotoxin. So once you're exposed, the damage is done. So what is happening to kids who were exposed early on before the officials took the crisis seriously and started taking steps to address the situation?

HANNA-ATTISHA: So for 18 months, the people of Flint were drinking lead-tainted water. And they didn't know that lead was in the water. There is no treatment. The only treatment is prevention. We can't take this exposure away. But we're surrounding our kids with science, with evidence-based interventions that we know promote development and can mitigate the impact of lead.

So in Flint right now, we have universal preschool. We have a Medicaid waiver, which provides, you know, health care and behavioral health care and support services. Every kid in Flint gets a book mailed to them every month from the ages of 0 to 5. So we are working day and night, as much as we were in the beginning of this crisis, to make sure that our kids turn out better than OK and really where we do not see the consequences of this widespread exposure.

MARTIN: Are you seeing it yet, though? I mean, some of the kids are already of an age where they're going to start taking standardized tests. Are you seeing any effects, despite these interventions?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Anecdotally, people come in and, really, attributing everything to the water crisis - a child's diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability or grandma's early dementia. So everybody's attributing everything to the water crisis. However, we were just funded by the CDC to build a registry for Flint. So this is our way to really use epidemiology and population health to see how people are doing and to, you know, address long-term issues.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She is director of the pediatric public health initiative at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint. And she's the winner of the Heinz award for her work exposing the health effects of Flint's water. Dr. Hanna-Attisha, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.