What If You Told the Truth and Nobody Listened?

What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha. One World, 384 pp, June 2018

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In 2014, Flint, Michigan, changed its drinking water source in order to save money. Already strapped for cash, the city hoped to recoup something by the change, but there were unexpected ramifications. Residents in certain Flint zip codes noticed off-odors and discoloration in their tap water. The authorities did some testing and determined that the reported decline in water quality was not a city problem, suggesting that some individual homes probably had pipes that were leaching lead. The affected residents were advised to get filters, change pipes, and run the water for five minutes before using it. Until residents made the changes, the thing to do, they were told, was to drink bottled water.

As time went on, there were more and more complaints. While officials tried to assure residents that all was well, people talked among themselves, shared stories, and continued to wonder about the color and smell of their water. Some asked their doctors about new skin rashes or hair loss. Most doctors, including pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, told their patients not to worry about the water. The authorities had deemed the drinking water safe, so that is what doctors told their patients. The idea that officials would lie about the safety of drinking water did not occur to most physicians.

Hanna-Attisha, known to her patients as Dr. Mona, did start to wonder, however. What if the authorities were wrong? The children who came to her clinic routinely had their lead levels checked, so she called for and studied her patients’ lab results. That led to further concerns. Her young patients drank formula mixed with Flint tap water. They ate food cooked in it. They bathed in it. Just as a precaution, she resolved to advise her patients to refrain from using the water. If water quality was diminished due to increased lead, her young patients were in grave danger. She believed more research was needed in order to discern if change was needed. Dr. Mona did not stop there.

What the Eyes Don’t See is a story about the water crisis in Flint, but it is also the story of a small group of people who came together to find a solution for what many did not even see as a problem. This small group used their areas of expertise—scientific research, advocacy, public relations, organizing, and teaching—to expose a crisis in order to help protect the citizens of a city. They focused on the health and well-being of Flint’s most vulnerable citizens: its young children. The group called for and analyzed more blood work records and spent hours advocating for action to provide safe drinking water. They exposed gross environmental injustice.

Dr. Mona notes that “while residents were being told that the water was safe to drink, [state officials] were arranging for water coolers to be delivered to the Flint State Office Building so state employees would not have to drink the water.” She wondered if such a crisis would occur in a wealthy suburb. “There really are two Americas, aren’t there? The America I was lucky enough to grow up in and the other America—the one I see in my clinic every day.”

What the Eyes Don’t See reminds us that even a small group of people can affect great change, and in that way this is a book of great hope. However, challenging governmental authorities is not easy. At one point, Dr. Mona asks herself, “What if I told the truth and nobody listened?” She was right to ask, because not many were willing to admit that thousands of people, many of them children, were negatively affected by negligence and lies. It took a group of dedicated people “moving toward the same goal: to make the world more just, more equitable, and a more human place. To do the right thing, even if it was hard.”

Dr. Mona relates the story of her resolve to help expose the Flint drinking water crisis using science and facts, but this book is so much more than that. It explores Hanna-Attisha’s background as a young Iraqi-American growing up in a family that understood the interdependence of people and the value of caring for others. Her parents had learned firsthand that sometimes powerful leaders can be dangerous and “that injustice must be challenged.” These glimpses into the author’s personal life add interest and readability to a book understandably filled with facts and data points. The book succeeds because it presents science within an engaging personal narrative.


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By (author): Mona Hanna-Attisha

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