(FLINT)—an 80 percent majority of the 87 Legionnaires’ diseases cases that came out of the city of Flint from 2014 to 2017 can be connected to the city’s water supply, according to a hotly disputed study released in early February.
A research team made up of experts from the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Colorado State University also found the less chlorine used to treat Flint River water, the more likely those who drank the water contracted Legionnaires’ disease.
Temperature of the water was not tested, a key point because the warmer the water, the easier it is for Legionella to grow. However, the researches from the “Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) research team” did suggest using polyvinyl chloride pipes, which don’t release iron when exposed to corrosive water.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) quickly disputed the report’s findings, writing that it reviewed the final draft articles, as did an independent third party, KWR Watercycle Research Institute and found numerous flaws that were brought to the research team’s attention, but to no avail.
“By publishing these inaccurate, incomplete studies at this point, FAHCEP has done nothing to help the citizens of Flint and has only added to public confusion on this issue,” wrote the department.
“The researchers not only failed to accurately describe conversations with MDHHS, but utilized variables in their dataset that inaccurately reflect the timing associated with cases of Legionnaires in Flint. Researchers also overestimate the risk to public health by focusing on a string of the bacteria, serogroup 6, that is not typically associated with Legionnaires’ disease.’
The release is unique in that it questions the articles at a time when the agency’s director and chief medical executive are facing charges arising over Flint water and Legionnaire’s Disease.
The findings, published in the academic journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and mBio, were announced the same day as more criminal court action took place from those public officials neck deep in the Flint water crisis.
A Genesee County Drain Commissioner’s office officials testified at a preliminary exam for four current and former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees that he warned then-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley, former finance director Gerald Ambrose, Flint’s former director of public works Howard Croft, former utilities director Daugherty Johnson, former Mayor Dayne Walling and district supervisor Stephen Busch that they didn’t have to switch to the Flint River. However, Croft said they were ready and Ambrose called it a “good deal for the city of Flint.”
Busch is one of the four MDEQ employees charged. Early, Ambrose, Croft and Johnson were also charged with crimes related to the water crisis.
John O’Brien, division director in the Genesee County Drain Commissioner’s office, testified that he toured the city’s water treatment plant at least twice pre-April 2014—when the city switched from Detroit water to Flint River—and that the plant wasn’t capable of providing safe drinking water because, in part, it was still under construction, including the chlorine room. Chlorine is essential to treating the water.
“We believed the plant was not ready to go based on conversations we had with the state and city from June 2013 to February 2014,” he testified.
O’Brien estimated it would take at least 90 days to complete construction on the water plant, which had been dormant decades, and test the facility to produce water before introducing it to the drinking water supply. He said staff also needed training because several employees were clearly there simply because they were “happy to have a job because they just came over from solid waste management” department.
“They came from garbage haulers,” he said. “Two weeks before that they were all riding shotgun on a garbage truck.”
O’Brien questioned Busch about why he authorized the city to activate the water treatment plant when it wasn’t ready and Busch replied that he “was directed to,” which O’Brien interpreted meant someone “higher up at MDEQ or (Department of) Treasury gave the go-ahead to move the treatment plant forward.”
Special Prosecutor Todd Flood questioned whether O’Brien would allow his family to drink the water with that knowledge, and O’Brien replied he did because in 2014 both city leaders and DEQ gave no indications there were problems so “we had no reason not to drink it.”
But, O’Brien changed his mind when he learned in late 2015 that there were issues with the water.
O’Brien was the only witness Monday in the preliminary exam for Busch; Liane Shekter Smith, 57, former chief of the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance; district engineer Michael Prysby, 54; and Patrick Cook, 54, a specialist for the DEQ’s Community Drinking Water Unit.
At the conclusion of the exam, Judge Jennifer Manley will decide if the four defendants will head to Genesee County Circuit Court for trial in connection with the 2014 Flint water crisis.
Busch and Prysby both face two counts each of misconduct in office, tampering with evidence and violation of Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act. They are alleged to have mislead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Genesee County Health Department about the lack of safety in drinking in Flint’s water from the Flint River.
Shekter Smith and Cook both face one count each of misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty. Cook also is charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in office for allegedly manipulating reporting of the lead and copper levels in the drinking water.
The prosecution previously announced they also will seek an involuntary manslaughter charge against Busch and Shekter Smith at the conclusion of the preliminary exam. The charge is in connection with the deaths of two people whom prosecutors say legionella contributed to their deaths.
This story presented in cooperation with MIRS, a Lansing-based news and information service.