Water Crisis in America

What We Can Learn from Flint

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On a recent episode of the Public Broadcasting Systems’ Frontline “Flint’s Deadly Water,” investigative reporters looked deeply at the city of Flint from 2014 to now in hopes of identifying the true causes of the water crisis and the cause of the many deaths. As an outsider, we immediately associate Flint with a lead crisis, which undoubtedly remains an issue. However, Frontline finally dives deeper and states that Legionnaires Disease is the true public health crisis that happened in Flint. Below is a summary of the research they did and their findings.

On April 25, 2014, city officials toasted themselves with a glass of water in celebration of the city switching over from Detroit City Water to Flint River Water with the press of a button. This decision came as a result of the promises of an upcoming pipeline and the city of Flint facing bankruptcy. It was proposed to turn the water surrounding the state of Michigan into money by carrying low cost, high quality water from Lake Huron to areas within eastern Michigan via the proposed pipeline. This $274 billion project was viewed by residents as a way for communities to take advantage of the natural resources they were surrounded by.

Due to the city of Flint’s financial status, and the high price associated with purchasing water from the city of Detroit, officials decided that the city would switch to using Flint River water rather than staying on Detroit water while the pipeline was being built. This decision was made without a vote from the city council due to the city’s financial status. As this old water treatment facility began preparations to open, several plant workers advised that the plant not be open on the originally stated date, as it wasn’t ready after having sat with little-to-no use for nearly half a century.  Still, and without hesitation, late that April the city made the switch. This began one of the largest Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks to date, but outside of Flint, this public health crisis received little-to-no attention.

The Legionnaires’ disease outbreak began well over a year before the city of Flint began getting attention for their lead issues. The outbreak is said to have begun in June of 2014 when the first known patient showed up to the local hospital. By mid-summer, more than a dozen cases of Legionnaires’ disease had been confirmed, but most people in Flint didn’t know anything about the growing outbreak. At the end of 2014, there were 40 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease; three of which had resulted in death. A similar pattern repeated in 2015 with 42 confirmed cases. It wasn’t until the high levels of lead were identified in 2015 that state officials finally came face to face with the fact that the switch in water supplies came with large consequences.

Recent documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have outlined Legionella and Legionnaires’ disease as being extremely underreported. In the recent report published by NASEM, they stated the estimated number of people with Legionnaires disease ranges from 52,000 to 70,000 in the United States each year. This estimate is about ten times higher than what is currently reported. Reporters for Frontline took a deeper look at this with the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint, believing that this too could be a case of severe underreporting. They broadened the scope of their study to look at deaths from pneumonia during this time period. When looking at the death certificates in Flint and those that stated pneumonia as cause of death, this number was almost three times more than the prior years. Frontline also plotted the addresses on each of these death certificates to see if anything stood out and noticed that in the older parts of the city, where there was likely older infrastructure, there was also a large cluster of these pneumonia-related and Legionnaries’ disease deaths all occurring in the time frame of when the city switched its water source.

Now, nearly six years since the outbreak began in Flint, many other parts of the country are beginning to experience their own assorted versions of this water nightmare. Recent outbreaks such as those witnessed in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere across the country remind the public, if only for a short time, that even in the developed world we live in, we are not always protected from water-related diseases. Legionnaires’ disease continues to be underdiagnosed, and the scope of the problem has yet to be concretely defined. As summarized by many industry professionals, conquering Legionella growth and Legionnaires’ disease will take a multi-stakeholder approach, and its success will only come from increased awareness.

If you are concerned about the water supply to your building, Chem-Aqua can help.  For assistance in controlling your building’s waterborne pathogen risks, Water Management Plans, Sampling Plans, Risk Assessments, accredited third-party lab sampling, audits, supplemental and emergency disinfections, consultations, or any questions, contact your Chem-Aqua Water Risk Management Services Group today at 1-866-209-3373.

Written by:  Caroline Hettermann


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