What the Eyes Don’t See | Mona Hanna-Attisha

Summary of: What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City
By: Mona Hanna-Attisha


Dive into the engaging story of Flint, Michigan, and the heroic efforts of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha to uncover the dangerous lead poisoning crisis plaguing the American city. The book, ‘What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,’ chronicles not only Flint’s systemic problems of racism and environmental injustices but also carries a strong message about activism and resilience. Explore the profound impact of Mona’s research and collaboration with activists, which has changed the lives of Flint’s people and inspired hope for a better future.

The Resilience of Mona Hanna-Attisha’s Family

Mona Hanna-Attisha’s family has a long history of activism and resilience. Her parents were progressive-minded people who opposed the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, but it was Mona’s grandfather and his cousin who best represented the family’s ongoing commitment to fighting injustice. Haji, Mona’s grandfather, had a great love for all people and was inspired by his cousin Nuri, who fought against fascism in Spain and remained a hero to his relatives despite spending half his life either hiding or in jail. While Mona’s parents always hoped to return to their homeland, Iraq’s history of enlightenment had been marred by the militant, fascist Ba’ath Party, led by Saddam Hussein.

Mona’s Love Letter to Flint

Mona, originally from the UK, moved to Michigan, where her father worked for General Motors. She did her medical schooling and clinical training in Flint, where she fell in love with the city’s resilience and activism. Despite the exploitative conditions and danger that the GM workers faced in the 1930s, they fought for better rights and conditions, which ultimately led to the recognition of the United Auto Workers union. This event is remembered as “The Strike Heard Around the World.” Flint has a rich legacy of activism and resilience.

The Racist Policies that Took a Toll on Flint

The Great Migration brought over six million African Americans to northern cities in search of decent employment, including Flint. However, the city suffered from racist housing and lending practices, with GM even encouraging such policies. Attempts to integrate neighborhoods and schools were met with racist campaigns, and riots in 1967 were the culmination of years of racist policies. Though fair housing policies were eventually enacted in 1968, blockbusting continued, leading to the Autoworld fiasco in the 1980s. Flint became exhibit number one in evidence for the catastrophic realities of a post-industrial world, with factories closing down and the city falling into disrepair.

Flint Water Crisis

In an attempt to save costs, Flint, Michigan elected an emergency manager in 2011, resulting in 50% of its African American residents living in areas controlled by non-elected officials. In 2014, Flint switched its water source to the Flint River, but never added anti-corrosive additives. This led to high levels of lead in the public water supply, which could have been avoided if officials had paid attention to warnings by General Motors and tested the water prior to the source change.

The Threat of Lead Poisoning

Lead is a highly toxic substance that poses a severe threat to human health. What makes it particularly hazardous is that lead poisoning symptoms are not readily apparent. Children, especially infants, are highly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Its exposure can interrupt their brain development and cause memory issues, attention disorders, mood disorders, and loss of impulse control. Studies suggest that lead poisoning in childhood can increase the likelihood of violent behavior in adulthood. The use of highly toxic tetraethyl (TEL) lead as an additive in automotive gasoline by GM in 1923 caused harm to workers and released dangerous amounts of lead into America’s air and soil through car exhaust. Regular ethanol could have solved the “knock” problem, but TEL lead was patented and made profitable. It’s crucial to know that no amount of lead is safe for human consumption.

Resilience and Health of Children

Protecting children from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) means uncovering problems that the eyes don’t see. Children, being resilient and vulnerable at the same time, need caring and nurturing adults in their communities. While ACEs negatively impact a child’s health, building resilience can help heal the brain and improve neural connections. To provide holistic care, pediatric doctors must understand a child’s environmental and community factors in addition to knowing symptoms of common diseases and genetic disorders.

Flint Water Disaster

Mona discovers lead contamination in Flint water after a memo is leaked from EPA and evidence confirms high levels of lead in children’s blood samples.

Mona, a pediatrician in Flint, became aware of the severe water problem in her city after a conversation with her childhood friend Elin, who works for a think tank. Elin disclosed a leaked memo from an EPA employee, Miguel del Toral, revealing dangerously high levels of lead in water tests taken at a Flint household. Similar to the situation in D.C. between 2000 and 2004, the government in Flint had been covering up the water problem, despite consistent statements to the contrary, and manipulating tests to meet minimum standards.

Mona, shocked by the evidence, confirmed the worst when she found a seven percent increase in children under the age of five with elevated lead levels in their blood samples after the water switch. She had been reassuring parents that Flint tap water was safe to use, but the officials had dropped the ball badly. The data set was small and came only from Mona’s clinic, so she expanded the data to find more results and confirm her suspicions.

The Flint water crisis remains a long-standing issue that took years to resolve, with its catastrophic impact still being felt by Flint residents today. Mona’s discovery of lead contamination in Flint water serves as a testament to the importance of transparency in government and the need for persistent pressure from whistleblowers, activists, and conscientious citizens to ensure that officials protect their constituents.

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