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Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha says the water crises in both Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan are examples of "environmental injustice." (Photo: Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Doctor Who Revealed Flint Lead Crisis Calls Benton Harbor Emergency More 'Environmental Injustice'

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha says the Michigan city's water crisis is another example of "how a predominantly poor and minority population disproportionately suffers the burden of environmental contamination."

Brett Wilkins

As the people of Benton Harbor, Michigan are being advised to drink only bottled water due to lead contamination in the city's pipes, the doctor whose research revealed Flint's lead crisis described similarities between the two emergencies, which she called examples of "environmental injustice" in an interview published Monday.

"There is lead in the water, and there's been lead in the water for too long... and it is absolutely not safe for anyone to be drinking at this time."

The 9,700 residents of Benton Harbor—85% of whom are Black and nearly half of whom are poor—were told last week to not use tap water for drinking, cooking, or bathing after lead concentrations up to 60 times the federal limit were first detected three years ago. That's a higher level of contamination than Flint suffered during its five-year crisis.

"The water is not safe to drink and especially not for children," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha—the pediatrician whose 2015 study revealed that Flint's children had high levels of lead in their blood after an unelected city manager switched water sources to save money—told Great Lakes Now.

"There is lead in the water, and there's been lead in the water for too long," she added. "We know what lead does, and it is absolutely not safe for anyone to be drinking at this time."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health, including damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified."

For three years, community activists have been asking the state to replace Benton Harbor's century-old lead pipes. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups, state, county, and local officials have failed to take sufficient action.

"It's baffling how we could be in this situation in Michigan in a majority Black community this soon after the Flint incident started," NRDC senior policy advocate Cyndi Roper told Michigan Live last week.

Last month, Hanna-Attisha joined 19 Michigan and national organizations in filing an NRDC-led emergency petiton with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeking an immediate source of safe drinking water for Benton Harbor's residents, who the document said "are not only subjected to a disproportionately high level of lead exposure from a variety of sources beyond their drinking water but also often lack access to high-quality healthcare and are exposed to a wide array of other threats that can exacerbate the negative health effects associated with lead exposure."

Asked if she saw similarities between the crises in Benton Harbor and Flint, Hanna-Attisha said that "the most striking similarity is the demographics of the population. Flint was this emblematic example of what environmental injustice is. Of how a predominantly poor and minority population disproportionately suffers the burden of environmental contamination."

"That's what we see in Benton Harbor as well," she continued. "It's a predominantly poor and minority city."

In neighboring St. Joseph, which is 85% white, the water is clean.

"As we take it a step further, it's also a city that was under emergency management," Hanna-Attisha said of Benton Harbor. "It's also a city that lost democracy and has been under-resourced. It has really been a victim of long-standing austerity and racism over time."

In what some critics called an "unconstitutional power grab," then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a 2011 law authorizing the appointment of unelected emergency financial managers for some of the state's insolvent cities and towns. Flint's cost-cutting emergency manager was widely blamed for the city's lead crisis.

According to EPA figures cited by the Environmental Defense Fund, 9.3 million U.S. homes receive their drinking water via pipes containing lead, with low-income and communities of color disproportionately affected. Residents of these communities are often ignored when they speak out and seek help. Hanna-Attisha said this is "another example of environmental injustice with the demographics of the population contributing to the disaster."

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