Flint water crisis whistle-blowers win MIT Media Lab's 'Disobedience Award'

The pediatrician and professor who first drew national attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that exposed residents to dangerously high levels of lead are set to receive the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab's first "Disobedience Award" on Friday.

The lab is honoring Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Michigan's Hurley Medical Center and Virginia Tech engineering Professor Marc Edwards for nonviolent "responsible disobedience," which breaks rules or norms to benefit society.

The pair in 2015 began looking into the high levels of lead poisoning seen in Flint, with Hanna-Attisha using data from electronic medical records to link the rise to the city's 2014 decision to switch its water supply to the Flint River from Lake Huron in an attempt to cut costs. The more corrosive river water caused lead to leach from the pipes that carry drinking water to the majority black city of 100,000 people.

Hanna-Attisha released her research, which was inspired by earlier work by Edwards and found high levels of lead in children's blood, before it was peer-reviewed, to speed the response to the problem.

"They saw, not a looming harm, but an actual harm that was occurring and they did what they needed to do to intervene," said Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab, which intends to present the awards annually.

Four former government officials were eventually criminally charged.

Hanna-Attisha said she acted because leaders had not been listening to Flint residents' complaints.

"It started with heroic mothers and pastors," Hanna-Attisha said. "The kids had been speaking out but no one was listening."

Other finalists, selected from 7,826 submissions, were climate change scientist James Hansen, activists who joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protesting the planned Dakota Access oil pipeline and the professors who founded "Freedom University," offering free weekend classes for immigrants living in the United States illegally.

The awards were conceived before President Donald Trump's stunning election victory, following a campaign that surprised many American political analysts with its raw, populist approach.

Ito said the selection committee did not intend to focus on projects aligned with liberal political priorities, though he acknowledged the picks tended that way.

"We took the liberty to say health and climate weren't partisan. That's a value judgment," Ito said.

Related Content