A few years back, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha felt perfectly comfortable telling parents it was fine for their kids to drink the town’s water. Flint, Michigan was a part of America, wasn’t it?
After she learned it was contaminated with lead, she evolved from passive pediatrician to investigator of the city’s water supply and activist for the public’s health. And the repercussions are still playing out.
On KERA’s Think, Hanna-Attisha said Flint’s water crisis is just one example of how neglected poor communities across the country are vulnerable to “environmental injustices” and how children especially suffer the long-term health consequences.
Hanna-Attisha writes about this in her book, "What The Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City."
Listen to the entire conversation with KERA's Courtney Collins or read interview highlights below.
Why people living poverty are at a disadvantage when it comes to health outcomes
In pediatrics, I think the most important concept that we are looking at now is early adversity — adverse childhood experiences and toxic stresses. That is so profound in children in poverty. We have so many kids in this country who are living with so many toxicities. It’s way more than just about Flint. It is about kids everywhere growing up with insurmountable adversities.
And those toxicities include poverty, lack of nutrition, violence exposure, incarcerated parents, child abuse, neglect and separated parents. All of these things are toxicities that alter children’s brain structure, genetics and neurological and hormonal systems, and we now know leave these lifelong scars. And poverty is really at the root of all of that.
In pediatrics, we now recognize the incredible role that poverty plays in the trajectory of children. Now, in our clinic as pediatricians not only do we screen for hearing and vision — we screen for poverty. We screen for these environmental situations that have an even greater impact on a child’s life than any medical thing that I can diagnose or prescribe for children.
On the typical relationship between poor families and their physicians
Our poor families, they care and love their children just like all of us do. Yet, they have every obstacle in the world to do what is best for their kids. And those obstacles are because of poverty. In our clinic in Flint, we have about a 20 to 30 percent no-show rate. Parents make appointments but they can’t come to their appointments, and it is not their fault. It is because they have every obstacle of poverty, from lack of transportation to lack of child care to all these other social and emotional and mental health issues that make it impossible for them to get what their children need.
How neglected infrastructure (gas leaks, missing sidewalks, etc.) affects health
If there are no safe places to play, you’re going to have higher rates of obesity, because kids can’t go outside and be physically active. One of the most fundamental issues of children’s development and health is the environments they grow up in. If there are no grocery stores and it’s all fast food places, that’s part of the environment. They’re going to be more unhealthy. If they live by a polluted site or a factory and the air quality is worse, they’re going to be more unhealthy. What happened in Flint is also the story of these larger environmental injustices because it is predominantly poor people and people of color who disproportionately suffer from environmental burdens. And that’s not just Flint — that is everywhere.
Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.