Book excerpt: "What the Eyes Don't See," on the Flint water scandal

After the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its public drinking water source to the Flint River in 2014, residents began to complain that their water was making them sick. The following year, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint's public hospital and a professor at Michigan State University's College of Medicine, announced that the number of Flint children with high levels of lead in their blood had doubled, and in some neighborhoods tripled.

The unfolding crisis in Flint (which has resulted in the indictments of 15 current or former state and city officials and staffers to date) is captured in Dr. Hanna-Attisha's new book, "What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City (One World/Random House).

Read the following excerpt from "What the Eyes Don't See," and don't miss Martha Teichner's interview with Dr. Hanna-Attisha on CBS' "Sunday Morning" June 17!


This is the story of the most important and emblematic envi­ronmental and public health disaster of this young century. More bluntly, it is the story of a government poisoning its own citizens, and then lying about it. It is a story about what happens when the very people responsible for keeping us safe care more about money and power than they care about us, or our children.

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One World

The crisis manifested itself in water—and in the bodies of the most vulnerable among us, children who drank that water and ate meals cooked with that water, and babies who guzzled bottles of formula mixed with that water. The government tried hard to con­vince parents the water was fine—safe—when it wasn't. But this is also a story about the deeper crises we're facing right now in our country: a breakdown in democracy; the disintegration of critical infrastructure due to inequality and austerity; environmental injus­tice that disproportionately affects the poor and black; the aban­donment of civic responsibility and our deep obligations as human beings to care and provide for one another. Along with all that—which is a lot already—it's about a bizarre disavowal of honesty, transparency, good government, and respect for scientific truth.

Those are demoralizing realities to face. But there is another story, another side of Flint. Because it is also a story about how we came together and fought back, and how each of us, no matter who we are—a parent, an activist, a schoolteacher, a pediatrician—has within us a piece of the answer. We each have the power to fix things. We can open one another's eyes to problems. We can work together to create a better, safer world, a place where all children can develop without obstacles and barriers, without poisoned water or callousness toward their dreams.

There are lots of villains in this story. A disaster of this scale does not happen completely by accident. Many people stopped caring about Flint and Flint's kids. Many people looked the other way. People in power made tragic and terrible choices—then collectively and ineptly tried to cover up their mistakes. While charges have been brought against some of the individuals who were culpable, the real villains are harder to see.

Because the real villains live underneath the behavior, and drive it. The real villains are the ongoing effects of racism, inequality, greed, anti-intellectualism, and even laissez-faire neoliberal capital­ism. These are powerful forces most of us don't notice, and don't want to. These villains poisoned Flint with policy—with decisions that were driven by lack of hope in government. If we stop believing that government can protect our public welfare and keep all chil­dren safe, not just the privileged ones, what do we have left? Who are we as a people, a society, a country, and a civilization?

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Brown water flows from a faucet in Flint, Michigan - the visible aspect of a water emergency.

WWJ

For all the villains in this story, there are also everyday heroes: the people of Flint. Each one has a story to tell—100,000 stories in all—about months of pain, anger, betrayal, and trauma, along with incredible perseverance and bravery. Flint fought hard, never gave up, and turned a devastating crisis into a model of resilience. But this book is only my story, told from my narrow perspective, as a doctor and as a brown immigrant in a majority-black city. It cannot attempt to do justice to all the stories that need to be told. No one book could.

But I will share with you a few stories of my Flint kids. They are my inspiration. To protect their privacy and dignity, I have changed or modified their names and identities. In some cases, composites have been created that are based on real patients and real encoun­ters. They are strong, smart, beautiful, and brave—and so resilient.

Resilience isn't something you are born with. It isn't a trait that you have or don't have. It's learned. This means that for every child raised in a toxic environment or an unraveling community—both of which take a terrible toll on childhood development and can have lasting effects—there is hope. This is another way we can come together and each be a piece of the answer, not just for Flint and places like Flint, but for children anywhere who bear the brunt of life's hardest blows, and live with poverty, violence, and hopeless­ness. Resilience is the key, the deciding factor between a child who overcomes adversity and thrives and a child who never makes it to a healthy adulthood.

Just as a child can learn to be resilient, so can a family, a neigh­borhood, a community, a city. And so can a country. A country can endure trauma and neglect and become a place where people are cared for, where democracy and equality and opportunity are once again encouraged and advanced. Where poverty is silenced instead of people. Where we nurture one another and create stable and safe environments for all children to grow up.

This is where healing begins.

Excerpted from "What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City" by Mona Hanna-Attisha. Copyright © 2018 by Mona Hanna-Attisha. Excerpted by permission of One World/Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

       
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