What’s in your water? The doctor will tell you

The Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series took an unexpected break in 2020, but it returns in May in virtual form. 

The Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series, in collaboration with the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundationwill present Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha with her discussion, “What’s in Your Water?” Award-winning broadcast journalist Enrique Cerna will join Hanna-Attisha in this virtual conversation on Zoom at 5 p.m. Friday, May 7. Please register in advance for this event. 

Event organizer Marshall Goldberg was finalizing plans for their presentation at last year’s Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series when the coronavirus pandemic canceled all in-person Sno-Isle Libraries events. Hanna-Attisha and Cerna quickly agreed to honor their Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series commitments in 2021. 

Hanna-Attisha is a Flint, Mich., pediatrician who took charge of efforts to address the city’s drinking water crisis after the water supply was switched in 2014 from the City of Detroit to the Flint River. In the months that followed, numerous residents in the poor, predominantly Black city reported becoming sick.  

Hanna-Attisha believed that most of the symptoms she was seeing in her young patients were attributable to lead poisoning, based on the symptoms she was seeing. 

Through 2015, initial investigations showed that state and local officials and the consultants they hired downplayed the complaints about Flint’s water and insisted it was safe. Flint’s state-appointed emergency city manager declined an offer by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to reconnect Flint to its system for free. 

In September 2015, Virginia Tech University published a study that showed elevated lead levels in Flint children’s blood and attributed it to the city’s new drinking water supply. It confirmed Hanna-Attisha’s suspicions of lead poisoning.  

She publicized the findings but officials continued to insist that Flint’s water was safe despite tests showing lead levels up to seven times higher than allowed under federal rules. 

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in 2016 and the Michigan attorney general’s office launched its first criminal investigation that resulted in several charges and a civil lawsuit against consultants hired by state officials. A second criminal investigation in 2019 resulted in 42 new charges against nine suspects, including former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

Fixing the lead contamination has been expensive.  

In 2016, the City of Flint began a four-year, $150 million effort to inspect every residence in the city and replace lead or galvanized steel drinking water supply pipes with copper. 

In August 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the State of Michigan had reached a $600 million settlement for dozens of civil lawsuits filed over the Flint water crisis. Additional settlements pushed the total to $641.2 million. Eighty percent of the funds will go to treat children in Flint who suffered lead poisoning. 

In the year since the 2020 Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series was postponed, much has changed in Flint, but the pandemic also highlighted entrenched racial and class disparities faced by residents in Flint and surrounding Genesee County, Hanna-Attisha said. She spoke with PBS News Hour reporter John Yang on May 12, 2020. 

Coronavirus hit Flint hard. At the time of the interview, the Genesee County health department reported the City of Flint had 40 percent of the county’s COVID-19 cases, even though the city accounts for only 25 percent of the county’s population.  

Hanna-Attisha was one of those cases. 

“Knock on wood, I’m feeling so much better,” Hanna-Attisha told Yang. “I still can’t taste or smell, but the scary respiratory cough, shortness of breath things are all gone.” 

Yang asked if the Flint water crisis was making the pandemic situation worse. 

Absolutely, we cannot rule out the water crisis in Flint, and also in Detroit,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Many families, and up to 5,000 families in Flint, could not even wash their hands. They did not have running water to wash their hands. I mean, what is the most important thing to do to kill the virus right now? Look, we can actually kill the virus with soap and water. But we can’t do that in many places, including in Flint.” 

While the Flint lead contamination will likely result in a population of children who will have long-term health and education deficits, she said, the pandemic was making things worse for children. 

“Now we have this pandemic, which creates significant gaps in education and nutrition and health care,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Our kids can’t go to high-quality child care anymore. They can’t participate in literacy services. The home visiting programs, all these things that we have put into place to buffer, to mitigate the impact of the water crisis with the lead exposure are gone right now.” 

Flint residents already had good reason to distrust government officials who lied to them about the dangers of their tap water, Hanna-Attisha told Yang.  

“We are just beginning to recover from our last public health crisis, and then this is an added public health crisis that is straining very limited resources and exacerbating pre-existing, chronic disparities,” she said.  

“We have, fortunately, over the last few years in our recovery from the water crisis, have been able to build some of the public health infrastructure to support families. However, that infrastructure, just like that public health infrastructure throughout our nation, needs more support and needs more funding.” 

Hanna-Attisha also wrote about her personal experience with Flint’s water crisis in “What the Eyes Don’t See.” Check out this list of recommended books and videos related to the Flint water crisis and drinking water safety. 

Award-winning Seattle broadcast journalist Enrique Cerna will interview Hanna-Attisha. He had a distinguished career over four decades with KOMO Radio, KING-TV and KCTS-TV before retiring in 2018 as senior correspondent for KCTS. He anchored current affairs programs at KING and KCTS, moderated statewide political debates, interviewed major newsmakers, produced and reported stories throughout Washington State and for national PBS programs. 

Cerna earned nine regional Emmy awards and numerous other journalistic honors. He is a member of the National Association of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter Silver Circle for his work as a television professional. 

“He has a great reputation,” Goldberg said of Cerna. “I couldn’t tell you how thrilled I am to have him as moderator.”

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Sno-Isle Libraries