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A Return To Flint, Where The Mayor Has Declared A State Of Emergency


Now we return to a disturbing story we covered earlier this year, the lead levels in Flint, Michigan's water supply continue to be so bad that the city's new mayor declared a state of emergency on Tuesday. Mayor Karen Weaver told NPR's Morning Edition she did it for Flint's children.


KAREN WEAVER: You're talking about a generation of 5-and-under that have been impacted by this. We need funding and we need resources. You know, it's an infrastructure crisis for us, so we know that's going to be a tremendous cost and burden that we can't handle by ourselves.

MARTIN: Back in October, we talked with pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who first called attention to health problems she was seeing in children that she linked to Flint's water supply. We decided to call her back to find out what, if anything, has changed since October. Dr. Mona, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Remind us again, why was there lead in the water?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Right. The city of Flint under state-appointed emergency management, almost bankrupt city, switched their water source from Detroit, which was fresh Great Lakes water source, which we've been using for over 50 years, to the local Flint River to save money. And that local Flint River was innately more corrosive than the Great Lakes water source. And the critical corrosion inhibitor, which is mandatory for all drinking water systems to use - you have to have corrosion control - was not added to that water. So you had a more corrosive water source without the corrosion control added to it going into an aging infrastructure with a lot of lead plumbing. That was a perfect storm for that lead to leach out of the pipes into the drinking water and into the bodies of children.

MARTIN: You know, when we talked with you last, in October, Flint officials had accepted your findings - the findings of your research - that there were higher blood-lead levels in the community, especially in the children, and officials had already switched back to using...


MARTIN: ...The original water system that was considered safer. So are there still problems with the water?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah, that's a great question. And that's a common misconception because we did switch back to the Detroit water in mid-October. And everybody is like, oh, we switched back, that's great. The water is fine right now. And it's not fine right now. This corrosive water that we used for about 18 months significantly damaged our infrastructure. And that protective seal that was in our plumbing is gone that prevented the lead from leaching out, and nobody knows when that protective seals is coming back. It is still not safe to drink.

MARTIN: So I know that you want to stay positive...


MARTIN: ...And I know that you don't want to cause undue alarm.


MARTIN: But if children - you know that there are children who were exposed.


MARTIN: What should their families be doing now...


MARTIN: ...In addition to avoiding the water?


MARTIN: Are there other things?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely, there are so many things that people can do right now, and we really do want to convey a message of hope. Nutrition can be a great mitigator for lead toxicity. Diets high in iron, calcium, vitamin C actually decrease the absorption of lead and promote the excretion. This is challenging in Flint because we have no grocery stores. And then going to your doctor - families need to go to their doctor. They need something called trauma-informed care. Our whole community's been traumatized, and they need to go to their doctor to get their kids' development checked. Whenever a kid comes to see me, as a pediatrician, we check their development. And the sooner that we pick up a delay, the sooner we refer them to early intervention services, the better their outcome. And we have to do everything that we can and call it a state of emergency - it is - to make sure that these kids still have the brightest future possible.

MARTIN: That was actually going to be my question, is do you think it is an emergency still?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Absolutely. This is a catastrophe. We have a clearly demarcated area of an entire population that was exposed to a neurotoxin. And if we don't do something right now to help our infrastructure and to help our children, we will see costly consequences for decades and generations to come.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha - she's a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint. Her research got the Michigan state legislature to address the lead in the city's water supply. Dr. Mona, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.