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Neglect, poor planning, and bad decisions led to Flint’s water crisis. It could easily happen again.

What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City

Mona Hanna-Attisha
One World
2018
378 pp.
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The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy

Anna Clark
Metropolitan Books
2018
318 pp.
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On 25 April 2014, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling ceremoniously shut off a valve to the Detroit water supply and opened the flow of the Flint River into local homes and businesses. He marked the occasion by drinking from a glass filled with water from the new source. Eighteen months later, the water supply was switched back to Detroit. What occurred in between—the city’s failure to control infrastructure corrosion, the deterioration of fresh water entering Flint residences, citizen complaints, government denials, elevated lead levels in children, and public outcry—would become the basis for a crisis that rose to national attention in 2015. What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha and The Poisoned City by Anna Clark are the first two books to document in detail this horrible disaster.

In What the Eyes Don’t See, the Flint story unfolds from the strikingly personal perspective of Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and activist who documented elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children. Born in England to Iraqi immigrants, Hanna-Attisha’s family moved to Flint when she was a child. Her brother, an attorney, has represented whistle-blowers in corporate fraud cases. A distant cousin was the first bacteriologist of Middle Eastern descent to work in the United States. A friend from high school became an environmental engineer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These relationships, we learn, bolster Hanna-Attisha’s commitment to her community.

Yet, “Dr. Mona,” as she is known, never strays too far from the stories of her young patients in Flint, whom she refers to as her “Flint kids.” With names changed for privacy, the children’s stories emphasize the importance of tap water to daily life and the long-term risks associated with lead exposure.

Hanna-Attisha’s writing style is direct and passionate. Her descriptions of the events that unfolded and the people involved reverberate with candor. She pulls no punches, directing some of her strongest criticism at Charles Kettering, whom she calls “Public Health Enemy #1.”

Head of research at General Motors (GM) from 1920 to 1947, Kettering was the driving force behind the world’s embrace of leaded gasoline during the mid-20th century. Despite known alternatives, Kettering promoted tetraethyl lead, knowing GM could patent the additive. Ironically, and despite his role in the history of lead poisoning, there are tributes to Kettering all over Flint.

If Kettering is the villain, Alice Hamilton is Hanna-Attisha’s heroine. A physician and research scientist during the early 20th century, Hamilton fought the use of lead in gasoline and advocated for safety standards that would protect workers exposed to it from its effects. Hamilton’s passionate fight clearly inspired Hanna-Attisha, who used ZIP codes to demonstrate that children living in areas that depended on water from the Flint river exhibited elevated blood lead levels.

The Poisoned City centers the story on Flint families and their advocacy on behalf of their children. Clark notes that Flint’s water crisis did not result from corporate malfeasance nor natural disaster. Rather, she argues, it arose as a direct result of neglect (at times willful), poor planning, and bad decision-making. (The latter including city officials’ decision to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act, followed by months of delay and cover-up at all levels of government.)

JIM WEST/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Lead is ubiquitous in American infrastructure.
Minute amounts in water can accumulate to toxic levels, leading to cognitive deficits.

But the story of Flint is also one of resilience. Residents rose up and challenged the indifference and false palliatives offered by the authorities, who for many months proclaimed that the water supply in Flint was safe for drinking.

Clark provides context to the Flint disaster with informative sections on race in America, the rise and fall of cities, and environmental justice. She details events and developments as recent as the spring of 2018, including positive signs of reinvestment in Flint’s social and economic infrastructure. (Hanna-Attisha provides similar details, often filtered through the experiences of immigrants to America.)

Both The Poisoned City and What the Eyes Don’t See offer day-by-day (at times moment-by-moment) accounts of the inexorable development of the conditions that led to the Flint disaster. If Hollywood were to produce a film inspired by the crisis, one can imagine scenes being interspersed with graphics revealing specific dates and times. Both books would have benefited from a similar device, if only to underscore how quickly the crisis emerged.

The water crisis in Flint is profoundly worrisome: Numerous children suffered lead poisoning as a direct result of a bureaucratic focus on the fiscal rather than the social. With the huge amount of lead incorporated into the nation’s infrastructure, many other communities are just a few poor decisions from a similar fate.

Double reviews prompt the question of which book to read. My recommendation is to read both. What the Eyes Don’t See and The Poisoned City reverberate with crucial details, profound insights, and inspiring conclusions. This is a rare opportunity to read two superb—yet strikingly distinct—accounts of a national tragedy.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.