by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, Health and Environmental Science Editor
“Nothing’s changed because the water’s been making my skin itchy. You can’t drink it, too.” – Amariyanna Copeny, known as Little Miss Flint, in a 2016 letter to President Barack Obama
Flint, Mich., is the birthplace of General Motors and the Flint Strike of 1936 that led to the formation of the United Auto Workers. The city has over 100,000 residents and is described as “one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the United States.” The average household income is $39,575 and 41.2 percent of the population lives below poverty levels. African Americans comprise 54.08 percent of residents.
“Many people stopped caring about Flint and Flint’s kids. Many people looked the other way. People in power made tragic and terrible choices, then collectively and ineptly tried to cover up their mistakes,” observes Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the pediatrician who, six years ago, noticed something was wrong.
On April 25, 2014, Michigan’s republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager who implemented a money-saving decision to use the Flint River as a water source during construction of a pipeline from Lake Huron. The water was not properly treated and corroded the city’s aging pipes causing lead to leach into the faucets of Flint’s residents.
“The people of Flint knew something was wrong with their water but when they voiced their concerns they were met with indifference and ignorance. My team and I found ourselves in the center of a public health crisis. What we found was devastating.”
According to ABC 7 WXYZ Detroit, “Despite desperate pleas from residents holding jugs of discolored skunky water, Snyder and his administration took no significant action until a doctor reported elevated levels of lead in children over 18 months later.”
In their “Timeline of Major Events of the Flint Water Crisis,” WXYZ reveals the EPA confirmed lead levels were dangerously high in March 2015. Gov. Snyder did not acknowledge the findings until September 2015 and failed to declare a public health emergency until January 2016.
That doctor is Michigan State University researcher and pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP. She serves as director of the Michigan State University Pediatric Public Health Initiative and is recipient of the $250,000 Heinz Foundation Award in Public Policy.
Eight-year-old Amariyanna Copeny became the face of the lead poisoning crisis after writing to President Obama: “My mom said chances are you will be too busy with more important things, but there is a lot of people coming on these buses [Congressional hearings on Flint’s water crisis were held in Washington, D.C., in February 2016] and even just a meeting from you or your wife would really lift people’s spirits.”
Lead has an irreversible impact on brain development in the fetus and children under the age of 6, causing speech and developmental delays and behavioral problems. Dr. Hannah-Attisha is the “hidden figure” behind the Flint Water Crisis.
In the summer of 2015, she recalls the exact moment she started to realize something was wrong. She was with a high school girlfriend and drinking water expert at a social gathering in her home who said, “Mona, the water isn’t being treated properly in Flint and there’s lead in the water.”
“And that’s the moment my life changed. When I heard the word lead, it was a call to action. I respect the science of what lead does. I understand it’s a potent, irreversible neurotoxin. I also understand that lead poisoning is a form of environmental racism … (T)hat’s the moment I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I lost about 30 pounds. And I began the quest to find out if that lead was getting into the bodies of our children.” Read more: https://www.npr.org/2021/01/14/956705090/pediatrician-who-spotlighted-lead-in-flint-water-weighs-in-on-crisis.
In the six years since she spearheaded research that detected lead levels had doubled in Flint’s children, Dr. Hanna-Attisha went on to establish a toxic registry to track the health of exposed children for decades, becoming instrumental in implementing free childcare, universal preschool, Medicaid expansion, mobile grocery stores and mental health and positive parenting programs for the children and families of Flint.
“Nine individuals have been indicted on a total of 41 counts related to a series of actions and inactions that created the historic injustice of the Flint Michigan Water Crisis.”
In “Mona Hanna-Attisha: The Will to Make a Difference,” the doctor states “The people of Flint knew something was wrong with their water but when they voiced their concerns they were met with indifference and ignorance. My team and I found ourselves in the center of a public health crisis. What we found was devastating.”
Former Gov. Rick Snyder has been charged with willful neglect of duty, and Michigan’s former Health Director Nick Lyon pled not guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of nine people who contracted Legionnaires disease, a bacterial infestation caused by the lack of chlorine in that drinking water.
Lyon is a 1990 graduate of Yale University with a degree in economics. He is not a medical doctor, and Michigan taxpayers paid $1.6 million in his defense – more than what the Michigan county spent on attorneys for every indigent defendant in 2019! Read more: https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2018/08/state_spending_flint_water_att.html.
After a lengthy investigation into the Flint water crisis that included 12 months of grand jury proceedings, prosecutor Kym L. Worthy announced on Jan. 14, 2021, “Nine individuals have been indicted on a total of 41 counts related to a series of actions and inactions that created the historic injustice of the Flint Michigan Water Crisis.”
“When an entire city is victimized by the negligence and indifference of those in power, it deserves an uncompromising investigation that holds to account anyone who is criminally culpable. That is what all residents in this state are entitled to, regardless of their zip code. And that is what this prosecution team did. Our approach was simple – where we believed the evidence would prove a criminal charge, we sought and obtained indictments for those crimes,” explains Fadwa Hammoud, solicitor general for the state of Michigan.
Hanna-Attisha honored with Heinz Award in Public Policy: https://research.msu.edu/hanna-attisha-honored-with-heinz-award-in-public-policy/.
2020 Jefferson Awards: San Francisco doctor researches impact of toxic dump on Hunters Point https://youtu.be/RF_f2nKONzA.
“Establishing medical necessity for implementation of a human biomonitoring program at the Hunters Point Shipyard, a federal Superfund site”: https://asumchai.medium.com/establishing-medical-necessity-for-implementation-of-a-human-biomonitoring-program-at-the-hunters-ca6c04a413c5.
“Toxic metals found in shipyard neighbors”: https://sfpublicpress.org/toxic-metals-found-in-shipyard-neighbors-but-source-still-unknown/.
“Moratorium: Legal legacy of harm to the Hunters Point community”: https://asumchai.medium.com/moratorium-37ff4081a398.
“Bayview residents sound alarm over potential dust from toxic site”: https://sfpublicpress.org/bayview-residents-sound-alarm-over-potential-dust-from-toxic-site/.
SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, founder and principal investigator for the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program, founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at AhimsaPorterSumchaiMD@Comcast.net. Dr. Sumchai is medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, a UCSF and Stanford trained author and researcher, and a member of the UCSF Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors.
Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai named 2021 UCSF Medical Alumna of the Year
On Jan. 28, 2021, the following letter was sent to Dr. Sumchai by Dr. Ramona Tascoe.
Dear Dr. Sumchai,
It is my great pleasure to officially inform you that the UCSF Medical Alumni Association has chosen you to receive the 2021 Alumni of the Year Award. This is in celebration of your work and commitment to advocacy and research for the Bayview Hunters Point Community, as well as a career of service to your patients, the community and UCSF students.
This award is the highest honor given by the Association. It is presented to those individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to medicine as outstanding physicians and through service in their respective fields. Katie Maloney with very little coaxing submitted your name and Dr. M. Reza Shirazi submitted a nomination in support of your selection. Additionally, an earlier nomination submitted anonymously for the 2020 UCSF Campaign Alumni Awards was reviewed by the committee.
It would be an honor to our Association and me if you would personally accept this award. The award will be announced during the UCSF Alumni Weekend 2021 school program on Saturday, April 17, 2021. This will be a virtual presentation in which we will work with you to pre-record the announcement and your response. We would like to physically present the award in person during School of Medicine Reunion Dinner at Alumni Weekend 2022, with the 2020 and 2022 award recipients – date and location to be announced. The Office of Alumni Relations will be in touch with you regarding the details of the events.
Please accept my congratulations on this honor.
Ramona Tascoe, MD, ‘79, President, Medical Alumni Association
Noted activist and physician Dr. Ramona Tascoe was a key figure in the 1967-68 student protests at San Francisco State University that led to the creation of the country’s first College of Ethnic Studies, going on to obtain a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1979. She also has a master of public administration degree from the University of San Francisco and a master of divinity degree from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. Dr. Tascoe works as an internal medicine specialist in Oakland, Calif., and has brought her unique expertise to communities around the world, such as Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, India, Sri Lanka and Haiti.