Flint’s Drinking Water Crisis Just Got More Toxic with Legionnaire’s Disease
Policy + Politics

Flint’s Drinking Water Crisis Just Got More Toxic with Legionnaire’s Disease

Rebecca Cook

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan called in the cavalry on Wednesday to assist beleaguered residents of economically snake-bit Flint, Mich., in coping with one of the worst municipal drinking water crises in modern U.S. history. But it will take a lot more than that for Snyder to wash away the political stain of this environmental catastrophe.

Members of the Michigan National Guard began assembling in Flint for briefings on the drinking water crisis ahead of a larger group that will help the Red Cross distribute bottled water, according to the Associated Press. And the Genesee County sheriff's office said volunteers and police hoped to get to 500 to 600 houses a day in a city of about 99,000 residents with an estimated 30,000 households.

Related: Michigan governor to request federal aid in Flint water crisis

But for a year or more, tens of thousands of residents were exposed to lead in their drinking water – a metal  that can cause behavior  problems and learning disabilities in infants and children -- while state officials chose to ignore complaints or slow-walked their responses.

And then, just when it looked as if things couldn’t get much worse, Snyder and other state officials yesterday confirmed that there has been a big spike in Legionnaire’s disease, an often-deadly form of pneumonia, in Genesee County, which surrounds Flint.

State Department of Health and Human Services officials say they are still looking for a cause. But the number of cases increased from a usual handful to 87 since June 2014, when the water system was switched from Lake Huron to the polluted, highly acidic Flint River. And ten of those cases resulted in deaths, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Snyder, a former businessperson who was first elected in 2010 as part of a new generation of Republican governors across the country, told reporters that he only learned of the medical cases a few days ago. He acknowledged during tough questioning the spike in Legionnaire’s disease cases “just adds to the disaster we are already facing.”

Related: Federal officials probe lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan

Legionnaires' disease is a respiratory bacterial infection usually spread through mist that comes from a water source, such as cooling towers, air conditioning or showers. It can also be contracted by people coming into contact with infected soil. It is not transmitted by one person to another, like many other diseases.

Last summer, there were at least a dozen deaths among 100 cases of Legionnaire’s disease in the South Bronx of New York City. Five cooling towers tested positive for legionnaire’s disease, including a cooling tower on the top of Lincoln Hospital, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the time

Yesterday, Snyder said that since October, more than 12,000 filters have been distributed to residents of Flint and more than 2,000 blood tests have been done. Those tests uncovered 43 cases of elevated lead levels. There have also been more than 700 water tests conducted, according to media reports.

Federal, state and local officials have voiced outrage over the crisis and are demanding strong action from Snyder and his administration. "I trust the good men and women of the National Guard will jumpstart the Snyder administration's lackluster response to this public health crisis," Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint, said in a statement. "Sadly, myself and many leaders of my community have advocated for this type of response for months."

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Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents the Flint area, said: "It is the state's ultimate responsibility to act and make it right. Flint residents are the victims in this crisis and they deserve a more urgent response equal to the gravity of this crisis."

Flint’s tap water became contaminated with excessive lead after the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron (through the Detroit water system) to the heavily polluted and corroding Flint River in 2014 to save money at a time when the deficit-ridden city was under state financial management.

Snyder had been aggressive in targeting financially desperate cities like Flint and Detroit for state oversight while they tried to resolve their major budget and economic problems. But a foolish cost-cutting measure by Flint’s state financial overseer effectively turned the city’s drinking water into a toxic stew.

According to the Detroit Free Press, immediate complaints about the smell and taste of the water were downplayed or largely ignored by the state. Then last October, the state Department of Environmental Quality acknowledged that it had failed to require the addition of needed corrosion control chemicals, which resulted in lead leaching from pipes and fixtures into the water.

Flint has since returned to Detroit's system for its water, but officials remain concerned that damage to the pipes caused by the Flint River means that lead could continue to impair supply. They also want to ensure monitoring protocols are properly followed.

While some officials’ heads have rolled since the crisis first surfaced, the scandal is likely to mushroom because of evidence of gross negligence or an attempted cover-up. For example, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who had been testing Flint’s water, told NBC News, "There is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened.

Edwards obtained an e-mail from Snyder's then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, stating, "I'm frustrated by the water issue in Flint. . . I really don't think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving.” 

The email, which was obtained through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request, went on to say, "These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts, and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we're just not sympathizing with their plight)."