In September 2015, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha went public with her team’s discovery of a human-made public health crisis in Flint, Michigan. Contaminated water exposed tens of thousands of Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead and caused the third-largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease recorded in U.S. history, which killed at least 12 people and sickened dozens more.
This year’s Common Book, What the Eyes Don’t See, is Hanna-Attisha’s first-hand account of her discovery and battle with her own government to expose the truth to the world.
As Otterbein’s incoming class of students reads this harrowing story, Otterbein professors will be sharing their unique expertise about the subjects addressed in the book. Among those are Professor Kevin Svitana, director of the Sustainability Studies Program and Associate Professor Rob Braun of Health and Sport Science, who teaches public health at Otterbein.
Otterbein Professors’ Insights into the 2022 Common Book
A water quality expert with more than three decades of experience as a geologist and hydrogeologist, Svitana offers a look at how the crisis happened:
“One of the failures of those responsible for the Flint water crisis is attributed to their lack of understanding of a water delivery system and the chemical dynamics of the system. While the Flint River water may not have been toxic, the chemistry of the water caused it to be corrosive to the pipes delivering the water to residents.
The corrosivity may or may not be attributed to pollution, but rather natural conditions, such as regional bedrock and soils, which can contain minerals or naturally occurring organics that can affect the water chemistry causing it to become corrosive. If the source water is corrosive, and this isn’t corrected by chemical adjustment prior to the water entering the distribution system, the corrosivity of the water begins to dissolve the pipes. If lead is part of the piping, whether it’s the actual pipe or the solder used to join copper pipes, it is dissolved into the water and travels as a lead-containing solution to consumers. This is the condition that occurred in Flint.”
In addition to how the crisis happened, the book examines why it happened. One of the main themes in the book is the environmental injustice the residents of Flint experienced. Associate Professor Rob Braun teaches public health education at Otterbein. He offers this view:
“The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as ‘the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” However, that ‘justice’ did not occur in the case of the Flint water crisis. As you read this book and reflect on its content, I encourage you to think of all the examples Dr. Hanna-Attisha reveals that contradict the above statement.”