Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (courtesy of Michigan State University)

On Thursday, the Heinz Family Foundation honored pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha by making her the recipient of the 22nd Heinz Award in the public policy category. The accolade includes an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.

Hanna-Attisha is being recognized for stepping forward to expose the elevated lead levels in children in the city of Flint, Mich.; for the work she put into establishing a comprehensive care and support system for children and families affected by lead exposure; and for igniting a renewed nationwide conversation about lead exposure and drinking-water safety.

As part of the honor, the doctor will receive an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.

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Hanna-Attisha is the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint and an associate professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

In 2014, shortly after the city of Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, residents in the city began complaining about the pungent brown water flowing from their faucets. Although state officials maintained that the water was safe, Hanna-Attisha was not convinced. She had previously studied findings by leading lead researcher and Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards, which indicated that the untreated water in Flint was 19 times more corrosive than the water that had been previously sourced from Lake Huron.

Hanna-Attisha told The Root: “When anybody in pediatrics or public health hears the word ‘lead,’ it’s a call to action. We know the science; we know what lead does. It’s an irreversible neurotoxin. There’s huge environmental injustices already with lead. Our country’s most vulnerable children already have higher rates of lead exposure.

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“Lead poisoning impacts a child’s entire future. Their entire life course trajectory ... it impacts how they think, how they act, their behavior,” she added. “When I heard the possibility that there was lead in the water, it was a call to action. It was my professional, moral and ethical responsibility to figure out what was going on in our children.”

Hanna-Attisha immediately went to work and analyzed data on 2,000 pediatric patients before and after the switch. Her research found that the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled since the switch, and in some neighborhoods, it had even tripled.

“Contrary to what was happening across our nation—where the percentage of children with elevated lead levels had been decreasing because we got lead out of paint and out of gasoline—every year in the nation, in our state and even in our city, the percentage of children with elevated lead levels was going down,” she said.

“We did a very simple study and looked to see what was happening to lead levels in Flint. We saw that the kids with elevated actually increased with the water switch, and it directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the worst,” Hanna-Attisha explained. “Where the water lead levels were the highest, we saw the greatest increase in children’s blood lead levels.”

That research was done in 2015 at “record speed,” she said.

Because Hanna-Attisha knew this was a public health emergency, she decided to go public with her findings. Initially, state government officials tried to discount her research and undermine her credibility. The public outcry and national media attention that was generated by her findings forced the state to re-evaluate its data, however, and both Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and then-President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for the area.

Hanna-Attisha said that although research results are not normally shared at a press conference, she felt that she had no choice because the families of Flint needed and deserved to know what was going on. She released her findings at a press conference in September 2015.

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“Lead impacts everybody. It impacts every organ system and every age group, including pets,” she said. “We worry the most about children, especially those under the age of 6 because that’s when their brains are developing. That’s when their nervous system is developing, and lead most potently is a neurotoxin.”

Since then, Hanna-Attisha has remained at the forefront of efforts to change public health policy on both the local and national levels, and to meet the needs of children and families who are being impacted by exposure to lead. In 2016 she became director of the newly created Pediatric Public Health Initiative, which is an interdisciplinary collaborative effort between Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital. The program will provide tools, resources and interventions for improving the health and development of children affected by lead exposure, and it will monitor those children and their families for years to come to assess the effectiveness of those interventions.

“With PPHI, we are actively trying to flip the story for our kids,” Hanna-Attisha said. “We are doing work that hasn’t been done before. We very much know what lead does—that science is there. We know what it does to cognition, to behavior, to criminality and to life outcomes, and leaning on the field of developmental neuroscience, we are proactively intervening to preserve the tomorrows of our children.

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“Everyone in Flint—community partners, moms, kids, nonprofits—is rolling up their sleeves to make sure that our kids turn out OK, and really better than OK,” she said. “We have been able to establish free, year-round child care. We are the only city to have universal preschool. We have Medicaid expansion, we have mobile grocery stores, we have breast-feeding services, mental-health support and positive parenting programs.

“My kids in Flint continue to be the inspiration for this work,” Hanna-Attisha continued. “They did absolutely nothing wrong other than to live in an almost bankrupt city that was under state emergency management, where the focus was cutting costs rather than children’s health. As a pediatrician, it’s my job to be an advocate for my patients, to protect and speak up for kids, because they can’t. That’s the privilege and honor of what I do every day.”

To that end, Hanna-Attisha is coordinating the establishment of a registry that will track the children of Flint who have been exposed to lead. She was appointed to the 15-member Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission, which has recommended the mandatory testing of all children for lead poisoning, expanded home-testing requirements and the creation of a statewide database of structures with dangerous lead levels.

Hanna-Attisha considers the Heinz Family Foundation award to be a huge honor.

“It’s humbling and it’s an incredible honor to receive this award. It’s prestigious in academics, and it means so much to me because one of the first people to receive this award was a pediatrician named Herb Needleman,” she said.

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“This was a pediatrician who spent his whole life and his whole career on lead,” she explained. “He was one of the first people to tell us that low levels of lead impact children. He spent much of his career being attacked by the lead industry, but he remained resilient and fought back for children.”

She added: “I think it means so much to me because I couldn’t do the work I do without incredible mentors and giants in the field, and he was definitely one of these amazing giants, and my work is possible by being able to stand on the shoulders of him and many others like him.”

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Hanna-Attisha also believes that the award is an excellent way to remind people that the crisis in Flint is ongoing. More than three years after it first began, the people of Flint still do not have clean water in their faucets.

The Heinz Awards were established to honor the memory of U.S. Sen. John Heinz. The awards have recognized 133 individuals and awarded more than $26 million to its honorees.

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“We are honored to present this year’s public policy award to Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who in her fight to protect the children and families of Flint has embodied the qualities of courage, wisdom, compassion and grit,” Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation, said. “Her unrelenting effort as a champion for truth, her continued advocacy work on behalf of those who will suffer the effects of lead exposure for years to come, and her commitment to making unsafe drinking water an issue of our nation, exemplify the tremendous impact that one citizen activist can have on our world.”

For more information about Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and other Heinz awardees, visit the foundation website.