2016 / Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who exposed the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and kicked off a nationwide conversation about lead exposure, is the 2016 recipient of The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

In an April 2014 bid to save money, an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder decided to switch the water supply from Lake Huron to the highly corrosive Flint River without adding the necessary corrosion control treatment. The city’s aging plumbing, it turned out, reacted poorly with the untreated water, which ate away at the pipes and caused lead — a potent neurotoxin that can damage the brains of children and cause developmental and behavioral problems — to seep into the city’s water supply for almost two years.

Soon after the switch, residents began complaining about the brown, stinking water flowing from their faucets, and they noted hair loss, skin rashes, and other health problems. State officials, however, insisted that Flint tap water was safe to use, so residents bathed, cooked, and drank contaminated water for months.

When “Dr. Mona,” as she’s affectionately known, discovered alarming research by Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards indicating that the untreated Flint water was 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron, she tried finding data about blood-lead levels in Flint children, but ran into bureaucratic obstacles. As the Director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Hurley Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Dr. Mona knew that routinely drawn blood-lead level data existed for thousands of Flint-area children, especially those on Medicaid or who live in high-risk areas for lead exposure. So she turned to the Genesee County Health Department, which told her test results are kept in individual patient files and could not be easily analyzed, and she faced similar challenges getting blood lead levels from the state.

Undaunted, Dr. Mona decided to look into more than 3,000 files of children at the hospital where she worked — drawing comparisons before and after the water source switch — and discovered some startling findings.

Dr. Mona and her team found that the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled, and in some neighborhoods even tripled. Given the public health emergency, she skipped the typical approach of publishing her findings in a medical journal and, instead, called an immediate press conference to alert the public. She told the press that her team “had an ethical, moral, and professional responsibility to alert our community about this crisis.”

Instead of rewarding her efforts, or giving consideration to her findings, the state of Michigan tried discrediting Dr. Mona. Her critics casually dismissed her research — claiming the figures did not match the state’s numbers — and publicly called Dr. Mona an “unfortunate researcher” who was “causing near hysteria.”

Dr. Mona described the state’s pushback as “emotionally jarring.”

“When [a] state with a team of 50 epidemiologists tells you you’re wrong, how can you not second-guess yourself?” she said.

But Dr. Mona and her team had meticulously checked their data and stood by their findings. The public outcry and national media attention forced the state to eventually go back and check its numbers. When it did, they discovered that Dr. Mona and her team were right. Within days, state and city officials held a press conference to address the toxic water, culminating in January’s state of emergency declarations by both Michigan Governor Snyder and President Obama.

Called a “true hero” by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Dr. Mona now leads a new initiative by Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital to research, monitor, and mitigate the impact of lead in Flint’s drinking water on more than 27,000 children. She and her colleagues have also established the Flint Child Health & Development Fund to collect donations for Flint children’s long-term needs.

The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling selection committee called Dr. Mona “a very deserving recipient of this year’s award for fearlessly and relentlessly speaking truth to power in order to promote the public health and safety of her community.”

Upon learning she will receive the 2016 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, Dr. Mona said, “I am honored and humbled. It has been said that courage is not the absence of fear but instead the judgment that fear is not as important as integrity. Yes, I had fear when I released my findings that Flint kids were drinking lead-laced water, and I was afraid when the State of Michigan attacked our research. But the honest truth is that I had no choice. I was doing my job as a pediatrician and my integrity, my moral compass and my training demanded I do exactly what I did and what I continue to do for the kids of Flint.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, has long been active in her community — in high school, she helped shut down a trash-burning incinerator. She majored in environmental health at the University of Michigan and received her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. She lives in Oakland County with her husband, also a pediatrician, and their two daughters.

2016 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches

Speech Transcripts

RACHEL MADDOW: Before the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a national story, back when it was just a full blown catastrophe being ignored and belittled by the state government, one local doctor in Flint, Michigan, decided that if there was trouble in the water in Flint, if there was lead in the water in Flint, then somebody should test the lead levels in the bloodstream of the kids in Flint.

And the doctor who had that insight and who made that commitment to do something about it, was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She did that work. And what she found when she did that work was frightening. And yeah, she was afraid of what would happen if she reported a finding so different from what the state was saying. She was afraid of what it would be like to have the government of the State of Michigan attack and belittle her, as they did.

But mostly she was afraid for the kids of Flint, Michigan, who had been poisoned and who were still being poisoned. And so afraid or not, she acted, and she spoke out and even when they attacked and belittled her, she kept speaking out.

We don’t yet know how this is going to end. We don’t yet know what happens to the thousands of kids in Flint who were exposed to toxic lead. We don’t know how far the state will go in helping them or their city. We don’t know how this manmade catastrophe of neglect will affect them or their kids for generations to come. The tragedy in Flint is deep and it’s broad and it really is unprecedented in scale and scope and kind.

And it’s not fixed, not nearly close to being fixed. But I will tell you this. When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha walks into a gathering of any size in Flint, the people stand up and applaud and people hug her and thank her. I have seen it with my own eyes up close. And the reason they do that is because she has been, and she continues to be, their champion. She told this very, very inconvenient truth for them on their behalf. And she hasn’t stopped since she started.

Without her, I don’t think we’d be talking about this story, and I know that nobody would be trying to fix it. So, thank you, Dr. Mona, and congratulations. Now, I’m going to turn it over to Taya Kitman to present the 2016 Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. I can’t think of a better recipient in the whole world. Thank you all for being here to celebrate with her.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you. It is an incredible honor to stand here today before you to receive the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, and a huge congratulations to all the prior and current awardees. As Danielle said, today’s an incredible day. Criminal charges were filed for the first time against city and state employees whose only job was to make sure that when we turned on our tap that the water was safe. That was their only job.

And this month is also an incredible month because this month marks our third year on water that is unsafe. This April marks our third year with the City of Flint drinking water that they shouldn’t be drinking. And for 18 months of that time, they were told to relax. When that water was gross, when it looked gross and it tasted gross and it smelled gross and it was causing medical problems and when we had e. coli in our water and we had boil advisories and when people were coming to town hall meetings with jugs of brown water and being arrested, they were told to relax. That it was fine to drink up.

And the real heroes of the story are the people of Flint. They had been raising their voices and they, like I said, had been going to town hall meetings. But when you have no democracy, when your democracy is usurped, when you’re under state appointed emergency management, where do those concerns go?

So there are incredible, incredible truth-tellers in this story; most importantly, the people of Flint. But I want to highlight four truth-tellers who wouldn’t have made my role possible. The first is Leann Walters. She’s a stay at home mom, turned water expert, and her kids were getting sick, rashes. She had twins and one twin wasn’t growing and was sick. The other twin was better. However, she Googled and got online and contacted the EPA and contacted all these experts to try to find out what was going on. And she fought every day for her kids and for every kid in Flint.

The next amazing truth-teller was Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter, a seasoned reporter who now works for the ACLU as an investigative reporter. He dug and he dug and he dug and he dug to find that difficult-to-find truth, and he reported it.

The next incredible truth-teller was a man named Miguel Del Toro, an EPA scientist, an ethical professional scientist, one of the world experts in corrosion control. And he offered to spend his own money to come to Flint to investigate this, and he was silenced. He was silenced; his work was silenced.

And then the last truth-teller who played such an integral role in the story was Mark Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineer who when he heard that Ms. Walters wasn’t being heard, when the state was dismissing her, as they had dismissed everybody, he packed his minivan with grad students and supplies and he drove from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Flint and he was hoping to use science to prove that there was lead in the water. But he was dismissed and he was ridiculed. All of these truth tellers were dismissed and ridiculed.

And when I heard about their work, and when I heard that there was possibility of lead in the water, it was my call to action. When pediatricians, when public health folks, hear anything about lead, we freak out, understandably so. There is no safe level of lead. It’s an environmental injustice that disproportionately affects our low income and minority children. And it causes these life course damning consequences.

So that’s when I started my crusade to see if that lead in the water was getting into the bodies of our children. And like Randy has said, it was a choiceless choice. This was my job. This was what I had to do. As a pediatrician, I’m charged with taking care of the children in front of me, but I’m also charged to make sure that they have the brightest future ahead of them. And what was happening in our water threatened the futures of all of our children in a very clearly demarcated area.

So this was not a nine to five issue, like the government had been dealing with. This was an issue that you didn’t sleep on. And we conducted our research in two weeks, which has really kind of six months of work, but we did not sleep because we had to find that truth. We had to know if our children had elevated lead levels.

And when we released our findings at a press conference in late September, because that’s how you release medical research, at a press conference, you publish it in peer review journals, but we could not wait. We had an ethical, a moral, a professional obligation to share this information and to share it as soon as possible. I was dismissed and attacked and ridiculed by government.

But fortunately, or unfortunately, and kind of the wave of media support that came in after my findings were released, the tide started to change. And it, unfortunately, took evidence that children had elevated lead levels for that to change.

But like I said, I was doing my job and I continue to do my job. And my job right now is to garner the resources for our children because we have a long road ahead of us. And we’re grateful to finally have investigations under way, to have results from those investigations because the people of Flint need that truth. They need all of the truth, because only when they have that truth can they begin the process of reconciliation and the long path to healing that must occur.

So thank you again for this incredible honor. It means so much just to be here in this room with so many incredible people who’ve been doing so many incredible things. And our work is just beginning in Flint. Thank you so much.