A Flint doctor whose research helped expose the lead contamination crisis in Flint’s drinking water said it was the chief medical executive’s work that moved state officials “to change course” in the water crisis.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician with Hurley Medical Center and Michigan State University, said Dr. Eden Wells’ phone call to her in October 2015 got the state to relook at its results—which contradicted the doctor’s research—of lead blood levels in Flint’s children.
“It was her phone call and I think what she did at the state level to re-look at the data . . . that really got them to change course,” the doctor testified April 24 at day 15 of Wells’ preliminary examination. “I’m grateful she was able to look at the data and to realize we did have a problem. If not for her action, I think it, the attacks and denials, would have gone on much longer.”
Hanna-Attisha summed up Flint’s situation rather succinctly: “Flint had no democracy; money was the bottom line.”
Wells is charged with involuntary manslaughter, lying to a special police agent and obstruction of justice in connection with the legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that killed 12 people and sickened nearly 80 more.
Special Prosecutor Todd Flood called the state’s last witness when Wayne State University associate professor Dr. Paul Kilgore was released from the stand April 24. He said the state would rest its case against Wells if the defense agreed to documents he wants to enter as evidence.
After a break, Flood and defense attorney Steve Tramontin announced they reached an agreement on some of the documents, but not two, including an executive order about Wells.
Flood was expected to report how he would proceed on April 25 when the hearing continues with testimony from defense witnesses, including Dr. Jeffrey Band, former chief of infectious disease at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
The defense called Hanna-Attisha to the stand Tuesday and Tramontin wasted little time in getting to the point as he asked her what inspired her to look into the Flint lead issue.
Hanna-Attisha said her family was hanging out with a friend’s family when the friend, who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, explained that corrosion control wasn’t being used in the Flint River and that could mean lead was in the water.
“That was the very first time, at my house, glass of wine in my hand that I heard lead in the water,” she said. “It’s already a form of environmental injustice; our kids in Flint already had higher lead levels and when I heard there was lead, I was kind of freaking out.”
Until that moment, the doctor said, she had heard the state’s reassurance that “everything was OK” and she believed it—until she heard there was lead in the water.
Concern propelled Hanna-Attisha to act and she contacted county health officials who told her water wasn’t their jurisdiction. She tried state officials, but she said she was “meeting road blocks at every level of government.”
The doctor then examined a small sample of Hurley patient records and saw an increase in the number of children with elevated lead levels. However, her sample was too small for scientific certainty so she expanded her sample size, which validated her prior results.
On Sept. 24, 2015, Hanna-Attisha held a press conference at Hurley hospital where she announced her results and urged people to take caution, especially those vulnerable to bacteria, such as the elderly with other health issues and children.
Hanna-Attisha said she was “happy” following the press conference, which she called “awesome,” because finally information was getting to the public, but it was a short-lived feeling.
“Quite quickly, I was attacked by the state,” she testified, specifically calling out former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel, who called the doctor’s work “unfortunate.”
Wurfel, who resigned in December 2015, later apologized for the remark.
Hanna-Attisha also said she was “attacked by several” departments, including the governor’s office, DHHS and MDEQ, but she and the hospital “fought back because we knew our science was right.”
And, it was Wells, the doctor said, who helped, in part by providing the data Hanna-Attisha had requested, but hadn’t received.
“I always found her to be responsive and if she didn’t know something she’d try to connect me to people who did,” Hanna-Attisha said. “I felt she was professional and responsive . . . She takes her work seriously. We’ve been able to do great things for kids throughout the state because of post Flint work.”
On cross examination, Flood, thanked Hanna-Attisha for “standing to make a wrong a right,” said even if Wells was helpful, at the end of the day she did nothing to stop what was happening with Flint’s water.
“Do you hear sirens, boots and the Department of Health coming here to solve the issue immediately?” Flood asked.
Hanna-Attisha replied: “It should have never gotten to that point. It should have stopped when that first mom raised the water bottle.”
As Flood attempted to get Hanna-Attisha to point the finger at Wells, she instead pointed it at herself, saying she should have seen it earlier and that the medical community was “by and large late to get involved” and she wished she had done so earlier.
This story presented in cooperation with MIRS, a Lansing-based news and information service.