Michigan officials never bothered to check if the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak was linked to dirty water

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The residents of Flint, Michigan have been struggling for months with a water crisis caused by dangerously high levels of lead in their water. They've also seen repeated outbreaks of Legionnaire's disease, a severe, sometimes deadly type of pneumonia that is caused by a water-borne bacteria.

It might seem reasonable to link Flint's dirty water with the disease, and officials floated the theory as far back as 2014. But, as The Detroit News reported on Wednesday, officials failed to test the water for legionella. In the months since then, members of different government agencies continued to ignore the problem, likely exacerbating an already dangerous situation in Flint. From The Detroit News:

None of five government agencies aware of the outbreak in Genesee County investigated the water system for Legionella despite concerns raised by the county’s Health Department over the water as early as October 2014. That was six months after the city left Detroit’s system and began drawing its water from the Flint River.


The negligence means that officials can't trace the source of the outbreak, and can't determine if Flint's current source of water is free of the bacteria.

In what has become a familiar narrative when it comes to Flint's water, it seems that bureaucratic inefficiency should be blamed for the lack of testing. Per The Detroit News, in October 2014, Michigan's state epidemiologist Shannon Johnson noted in an email that the thinking at the time was that “the source of the outbreak may be the Flint municipal water." She added, "I let (the county health department) know that we could assist with and facilitate environmental testing, whether it be through our lab or DEQ." But nothing happened.

In March 2015, an EPA official suggested testing Flint water for Legionella, but apparently the EPA said it did not get a request for such action, and Michigan officials said the CDC does not recommend testing municipal water sources. The CDC, for its part, said it didn't receive a request for support until 2016, though it had been alerted to the problem earlier.

Last month, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder suggested that health officials did not have enough evidence to conclude whether lead in Flint's water could be linked to Legionnaire's disease. "From a scientific or medical point of view," he said, "I don't believe that determination can be made today." But that may not be the case. The state health department told the Detroit News it has 12 DNA swabs from those who contracted the disease that could match to the source of the outbreak—if the water had been tested.


Snyder's opponents say that his stance is just another way to avoid responsibility for the mess. Michigan Democratic Party chairman Brandon Dillon said in a statement posted to Facebook that "There is a limit to how many times you can play dumb when it comes to events and actions that take place on your watch," adding, "This governor is either a victim of the culture of secrecy that he created or he’s lying. If he didn’t know, the incompetence is astounding. If he’s lying, the betrayal of trust is unforgiveable.”

If the best case scenario is Snyder's ignorance, we've got a problem.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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