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Flint Combats Lead-Contaminated Water Effects On Child Development


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We're watching an ongoing crisis in Flint, Mich. Governor Rick Snyder has just called on President Obama to declare a state of emergency there. Dangerous levels of lead have leached into the city's water supply. It started in 2014 when city officials switched the water source from the Great Lakes to the Flint River to cut costs. But the river water is more corrosive than the lake water and eats away at lead pipes. The city has switched back to lake water, but the devastating reality is the children of Flint have been poisoned and are at risk of serious developmental delays and permanent health issues. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician at Hurley Children's Hospital in Flint, and she is the head of a new initiative to assist the affected children. She was also the first to discover this widespread poisoning, and she joins us from her office in Flint. Dr. Hanna-Attisha, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: You confided in a recent interview that when pediatricians hear the word lead we freak out. Help us understand why.

HANNA-ATTISHA: We know lead - lead is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin. It's been well-studied, well-researched, and it has lifelong and damning consequences. It effects your cognition. It effects your behavior. It has a multigenerational impact.

SIMON: What do you do?

HANNA-ATTISHA: So what we are trying to do is we are trying to throw every single evidence-based intervention at these children. And they encompass education, so early literature programs, and universal preschool and nutrition access and access to mental health services. All of these things are known to help children who are at risk for developmental disabilities.

SIMON: What kind of support do you need from not just the state government but the federal government?

HANNA-ATTISHA: We need funding for these interventions. We need funding to expand Head Start programming. We need funding to help us continue to assess and monitor these children. We need every resource in the world so maybe we won't see those consequences, and that's this new initiative that we're trying to get going.

SIMON: And what is it exactly?

HANNA-ATTISHA: One - to assess this exposure, to continue our research to see how widespread, how bad was the exposure. Number two - to do that long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up with these children. But the most important thing I think is the third thing, which is the implementation and the assessment of interventions. So what can we put into this community - innovative interventions - so that we don't see those consequences so then when we are studying them in 10-20 years, hey, maybe we won't see the bad effects of lead poisoning.

SIMON: Dr. Hanna-Attisha, I'm sorry if this sounds naive, but how could nobody in authority know that this would happen?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah. So the river water was more corrosive, but what was the real problem was that corrosion control was not added to this water treatment. That was the crux of this problem. So yeah, I don't know what happened, and there's many investigations to figure out what happened and what went wrong. But it is unfortunate that in 2016 in the middle of the Great Lakes - we are literally in the middle of the Great Lakes - that we could not guarantee a population access to safe drinking water.

SIMON: And painful as it might be to detail, what are some of the things to which children will be vulnerable?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah. So lead has kind of these lifelong consequences. It effects your cognition. It actually drops your IQ. So imagine what that's done to an entire population. We have shifted our IQ curve down. And then it effects your behavior. It causes attention deficit hyperactivity behavior. It's even been linked to criminality.

SIMON: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Children's Hospital in Flint, Mich., thanks so much for being with us.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.