What the Eyes Don't See Summary
What the Eyes Don’t See is a 2017 memoir by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped to uncover the Flint water crisis.
- In the summer of 2015, after being informed by her friend Elin that rumors of lead in Flint’s drinking water were likely true, Dr. Hanna-Attisha began researching the issue.
- With Elin, her colleague Jenny, the scientist and activist Marc Edwards, and others, Dr. Hanna-Attisha successfully exposed the water crisis and the government negligence that had led to it.
- In the aftermath of the crisis, Dr. Hanna-Attisha remains hopeful about the power of community to overcome injustice.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City details the experiences of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, from approximately late August 2015 to February 2016, in relation to the Flint water crisis. Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician, and the story opens with her seeing patients and giving advice to parents. During this time, parents began coming to her with concerns about the tap water that they were giving to their children; there had recently been a switch between water sources in Flint, and rumors suggested that the water was not safe to drink. However, Dr. Hanna-Attisha dismissed these as only rumors. Later that day, she attended a barbecue where she saw some of her old high school friends, among them Elin, who worked in Washington, DC. Elin told her that the water rumors might actually be true. There had been reporters and whistleblowers from Washington who were raising serious concerns about lead levels in the water, but public health officials were trying to discredit them and keep their findings hidden. Elin wondered if Dr. Hanna-Attisha might have access to blood-lead data that would help get to the bottom of the issue.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha began researching lead, water, and Flint, and while speaking to Elin, she discovered that Flint used no corrosion-controlling chemicals in their water. This was a problem because much of the plumbing in Flint contained lead. Corrosive water could eat away at the lead in the pipes, which would mean that people were drinking lead. She also learned that at the time of the switch, the General Motors plant in Flint had asked for an exception to the new water, as the water corroded their mechanical parts. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Hanna-Attisha had a meeting with a low-level city health employee, and she asked him about lead in the water. He discounted the idea and said that such an issue was out of his jurisdiction anyway.
This was the first of many government employees Dr. Hanna-Attisha encountered who dismissed her concerns. After this meeting, she attempted to obtain county and state level blood-lead data so that she could analyze it, but she was continuously ignored by officials. She was able to use the blood-lead records from her own hospital; however, these were small numbers that did not reflect the entire population of Flint and its surrounding areas. Still, with the help of a data analyst and friend, Jenny, she was able to develop preliminary findings suggesting that, indeed, there had been a spike in lead in children’s blood since the water switch in Flint. She continued to try to access county and state data but was continuously thwarted by those who wished to impede her research.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha and Jenny reached out to Dr. Marc Edwards, a biophysicist, activist, and researcher on water and corrosion, and he began to help them. He came to Flint to test houses and show that there were toxic levels of lead in most residents’ drinking water. He also helped them become more vocal about their findings and apply pressure to the local and state government to respond to these findings. However, government and public health officials, including Flint’s mayor, insisted that they had tested the water in Flint and that there were no lead issues. Although Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her team eventually held a press conference to show their findings and spur the government into declaring a public health emergency, Flint public works attempted to cast Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her research team as a group of rabble-rousers rather than researchers. The local government released a counter-report that showed...
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no issues in blood-lead levels or in water measurements, although this data was clearly manipulated and unscientific.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha continued to garner both public and academic support for her findings. Further, Dr. Edwards asked that the local government release all correspondence related to the water switch, including emails. These eventually revealed disturbing facts, suggesting that public employees were aware of the lead problem and, instead of acting on it, attempted to cover it up. The local government eventually gave in and accepted Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s research as valid. Although they called a state of emergency, officials attempted to circumvent responsibility, casting the events as unfortunate circumstances rather than the results of negligence or malice. Even so, Dr. Hanna-Attisha used this crisis as a way not only to access clean water for the people of Flint, but as a way to develop more community programs and increase health awareness in the city. Although she has learned to be skeptical of government, Dr. Hanna-Attisha ends on a positive note, hailing the strength of communities and being true to one’s ideals. As long as there is hope, she believes, no adversity can entirely crush a community.
It is worth noting that Dr. Hanna-Atisha’s story is also interspersed with chapters detailing the history of the author’s family, medical activism, and the city of Flint. Although these are not central to the narrative, they provide rich context and character development.