The doctor credited with exposing the lead contamination in the Flint, Mich., water supply says she has accepted Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's apology for failing to recognize the crisis sooner.
"The state has apologized," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, told CNN. "I've accepted their apology."
Hanna-Attisha, a Michigan native, says her "crusade" began by chance last August, when she was discussing the city's decision to switch its water supply source from Lake Huron to the dirty Flint River over dinner with a friend.
That friend, a former Environmental Protection Agency staffer, had heard Flint wasn't doing enough to prevent lead in aging, corroded pipes from leaching into the water supply.
"When pediatricians hear anything about lead," Hanna-Attisha, a mother of two young girls, said, "we absolutely freak out."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead is a known neurotoxin and is particularly harmful to young children whose neurological systems are still developing. "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified," the CDC says. "Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. And because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized."
Hanna-Attisha and other doctors at Hurley Medical Center began research to see if the lead in the water was getting into the bodies of Flint's children. What they found, she says, was shocking.
"The entire city was exposed," Hanna-Attisha said. "Every neighborhood had high water lead levels. And every neighborhood had children with high blood lead levels."
Of the 737 children they tested, about 5 percent had elevated lead levels in their blood — or double the number of kids with elevated lead levels (2.4 percent) before the switch.
According to 2010 U.S. census data, the predominantly black Detroit suburb is home to about 8,657 children.
"In some neighborhoods, it actually tripled," Hanna-Attisha said. "(In) one specific neighborhood, the percentage of kids with lead poisoning went from about 5 percent to almost 16 percent of the kids that were tested. It directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest."
She added: "We couldn't believe that in 2016 now, in the middle of the Great Lakes, we couldn't guarantee a population access to good drinking water."
Hanna-Attisha said their findings were embraced by Flint city officials, but shunned by the state.
"When we shared it with the state, we were told it was wrong and that it was not consistent with [their] data," she said.
So Hanna-Attisha called a press conference to release the data.
"You don't usually release data in a press conference," she said. "It's supposed to be in published in journals, which it is now. But we have an ethical, moral, professional obligation to alert our community about these risks."
Hanna-Attisha's research was published in the American Journal of Public Health in December — and led to the current outcry over Snyder's handling of Flint's water crisis.
On Saturday, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Michigan and designated a federal disaster coordinator to oversee the response.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called for Snyder's resignation.
“There are no excuses," Sanders said in a statement released by his Democratic presidential campaign. "The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint's water. He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Gov. Snyder should resign.”
"I'm sorry and I will fix it," Snyder told Flint residents during a state of the state address Tuesday. "You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this."
"Government failed you at the federal, state and local level," the governor said. "We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city."
Hanna-Attisha is now working with the state to address the crisis.