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Researcher describes environmental racism in Flint in Klau Center lecture

| Monday, September 28, 2020

When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha learned that children in Flint, Mich. were drinking water so contaminated that it was corroding car engines, she knew she had to act.

In a virtual lecture Friday, Hanna-Attisha, who serves as the director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, described the water crisis in Flint and her role as a researcher in exposing the problems. The lecture was a part of the Klau Center’s initiative this semester entitled, “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary.”

The author of “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resilience and Hope in an American City,” Hanna-Attisha was spurred to action after a friend told her that there were reports that Flint’s water was not being treated properly.

Flint residents had long been suspicious of the quality of the drinking water, citing its unusual color, smell and taste. But despite their concerns, the government continually reassured residents that there was nothing to worry about — and even offered safeguards to the corporations that are the backbone of Flint’s economy.

“The most jaw-dropping red flag for me — and it still makes my jaw drop — is learning that our drinking water was corroding engine parts at a General Motors plant,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Can you believe that? Our drinking water was corroding car parts.”

General Motors was permitted to use water from a cleaner source, but the people of Flint “were told to relax,” Hanna-Attisha recalled.

When Hanna-Attisha learned of the reports that could confirm residents’ suspicions, she began her research to determine that community advocates’ fears were grounded in reality: lead levels in Flint water were not safe.

Hanna-Attisha underscored how environmental justice and racial justice intersect, noting that it was “no surprise” that lead poisoning is most prevalent in minority communities.

“Lead poisoning [is] a form of environmental injustice and also a form of environmental racism. I think the words can be used the same [way],” she said.

A range of investigations into the Flint water crisis support Hanna-Attisha’s conclusion, including one from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Flint’s demographics are central to understanding the crisis: compared to other Michigan cities such as Ann Arbor and Grosse Point, Flint has a much larger African American and low-income population.

“This never would have happened in a richer or whiter community,” Hanna-Attisha said.

While the crisis in Flint revealed a number of racial inequalities and disparities, the pandemic in 2020 has similarly had a disproportionate impact on poor and African American communities, Hanna-Attisha said. She said four major lessons officials learned from responding to the Flint crisis can also help the United States learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

She emphasized the importance of a good government that values public health, the essential nature of democracy, the need to respect science and medicine and the value of investing in preventative and proactive health care measures.

“We were trying to share these lessons in Flint, and now much of the nation is experiencing these very same lessons,” Hanna-Attisha said. “That gives me hope that we will be able to reimagine and rebuild and finally take heed of these lessons.”

Despite the tragedy of Flint’s drinking water, Hanna-Attisha remains hopeful that lessons can be drawn from the crisis and response in Flint.

“I am this eternal optimist,” she said. “I am hopeful — I am absolutely hopeful. I have already seen some of the ripple effects of our crisis that have prevented other crises.”

As cities across the country saw the drinking water crisis unfold in Flint, they became much more aware of drinking water and regulations in their own governments. Prior to the Flint crisis, many people viewed lead in water as a problem that had already been fixed. Once the failings in Flint’s water system were revealed, however, it was impossible to continue to take clean drinking water for granted.

Hanna-Attisha said that this national reckoning sparked many cities to make important changes to ensure safer water for their residents.

“The nation’s really woken up to the issues of drinking water, and that’s strengthened a lot of regulations in some places and forced folks to ask more questions and hold folks accountable to the status of the quality of our drinking water,” Hanna-Attisha said.

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