The Flint crisis is getting complicated. Internal emails have revealed that high-ranking officials were sufficiently aware of a surge in Legionnaires’ disease potentially linked to Flint’s water long in advance of the Governor Rick Snyder’s statement reporting the outbreak to the public last month.
Legionnaires’ disease (aka Legionellosis) is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria in the lungs. People can fall sick after inhaling mist or vapor from contaminated water systems, hot tubs, or cooling systems.
Snyder claimed that he was made aware of the increase in the disease just a couple of days earlier before his statement on January 13. But emails recovered by Progress Michigan, a liberal group, through public records requests, tell a different story. The Associated Press reports that Snyder’s office was well in the know of the outbreak due to Flint water since last March. Others in the administration were scurrying in response to suggestions that the main culprit for the outbreak could be the bacteria in the city’s new water source, the Flint river, during that time.
A different set of emails revealed that the Flint outbreak was well known even among the state agencies. Enough evidence is at hand when you put together both sets of emails, which project the fact that some state officials were in denial when it came to the concerns raised by county officials regarding the safety of the community’s drinking water from the Flint river.
Jim Henry, Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor, wrote on March 10 to Flint leaders, the city’s state-appointed emergency financial manager and the state Department of Environmental Quality, known as the DEQ.
“The increase of the illnesses closely corresponds with the timeframe of the switch to the Flint River water. The majority of the cases reside or have an association with the city.This situation has been explicitly explained to MDEQ and many of the city’s officials. I want to make sure in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue.”
An initial surge of more than 40 cases was known by early 2015, and there were at least 87 cases across Genesee County during a 17-month period, including nine deaths. All these facts were concealed from the general public.
All this while the authorities were working behind the scenes in the build up towards the lead contamination in Flint became an extraordinary health emergency six months later.
Clear fissures are visible via the emails between the county health department, which was on the front line of the Legionnaires’ outbreak, and the city and state about how to investigate the disease.
Brad Wurfel, who was DEQ spokesman at the time, informed Snyder’s director of urban initiatives in the email.
“More than 40 cases reported since last April. That’s a significant uptick. More than all the cases reported in the last five years or more combined.”
Harvey Hollins noted a “significant uptick” in Legionnaires’ cases but said it was “beyond irresponsible” for Henry to link the disease to the Flint river without an adequate investigation. He copied then-DEQ director Dan Wyant on the email. Both Wyant and Wurfel resigned on December 29.
On March 12, Stephen Busch, a DEQ district supervisor, wrote back to Henry and challenged his assertion that the DEQ had declined to meet since being initially informed in October 2014 about a rise in Legionnaires’ cases. Busch said the department never was asked for a meeting, but he agreed a multi-agency partnership would be beneficial moving forward. He wrote,
“Conclusions that legionella is coming from the public water system without the presentation of any substantiating evidence from your epidemiologic investigation appears premature and prejudice [sic] toward that end.”
Janet Stout is a Pittsburgh microbiologist and expert on Legionnaires’ disease who has researched links between Legionella bacteria and public water supplies from Flint. She believes the Flint River caused an increase in Genesee County Legionnaires’ cases.
She said, “The county was alerting and alarmed and seeking cooperation and help from outside agencies. What I read tells me they did not get much help for various reasons.”
Detroit Free Press reported that chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party Brandon Dillon, for the first time, called on Snyder to resign though Snyder himself has no such plans.
The Flint crisis has been simmering for some time now with the spiked lead content in the water and now the cause behind Legionnaires’ disease. Authorities need to take stock of the situation in the earnest and deal with this emergency in a transparent and accountable manner.
[Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]