Confirming what local residents, researchers, and observers have long suspected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found genetic links between the city water in Flint and patients suffering from Legionnaires’ disease in the area.
While the CDC’s molecular testing found the connection between water from McLaren-Flint hospital and three patients last year, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services only found out about it last month. Soon afterward, they told the hospital and the Genesee County Health Department to be prepared to hand over more water samples. However, the information raises a number of new questions.
The three samples studied had more than a 99 percent allele match, which is a genetic match, but one of the victims studied was never a patient at the hospital. This points to Legionella being present in the Flint water system. In 2014 and 2015, when the city got its water from the Flint River without treating it first to make it less corrosive, 78 people came down with the illness and ten people died from it.
Legionnaires is an often lethal type of pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria that is contracted via airborne exposure to infected water, such as by breathing in its vapors during a hot shower or from condensation in an air conditioning unit. Symptoms include coughing, fever, and chills.
Legionnaire expert Dr. Janet Stout of the University of Pittsburgh said that legionella’s presence in Flint was “widespread,” adding: “The [laboratory] results show that strains [of the bacteria] were throughout the water system.”
Virginia Tech professor Amy Pruden, who helped author a study on the matter, said that the three genetic matches show how prevalent the bacteria actually was in the city’s water. That study found levels of legionella that were 1,000 times higher than those of typical tap water. Moreover, discovering the genetic match in a person who was not at the hospital being blamed for the outbreak seems to suggest that the same strain was in other places.
The Flint water drama started when Governor Rick Snyder’s administration disconnected the city from Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department in a money-saving move, providing residents with water from the Flint River instead. Shortly after the switch, residents started to complain about unpleasant smells and colors in their drinking water. Levels of lead reportedly quadrupled, and other toxic chemicals were also detected. During the two years that locals had to drink the water from the river, cases of Legionnaires’ disease spiked in Genesee County.
The city of Flint and the state of Michigan are being sued by a group of 31,000 area residents for injuries they obtained by drinking the lead-laden water. They say that authorities were aware the water was contaminated but looked the other way. At least 13 officials have been hit with criminal charges relating to the water crisis. According to the suit, the city has not provided drinkable water to residents since April of 2014. Many area children will be dealing with the health problems associated with lead poisoning for the rest of their lives.