News Feature | February 22, 2017

New Data May Link Flint Water System, Legionnaires' Deaths

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

New research is raising questions about what role the water system in Flint, MI, played in a major outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.

“Instead of closing the book on what caused the outbreak that killed 12 people in 2014 and 2015, the scientific [research] instead [presents] new questions about whether Flint's water system was the source of the outbreak,” MLive reported.

Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially deadly illness that can occur in people exposed to Legionella bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The symptoms resemble pneumonia.

Molecular testing conducted by the CDC has launched a debate over the role that the Flint water system played in the outbreak.

Experts say the findings “suggest that Legionella thrived throughout the Flint water system, making it the real culprit in Legionnaires' deaths and illnesses in 2014 and 2015,” the report said.

The state does not agree. Since the Legionnaires’ deaths included patients at McLaren-Flint hospital, the state is focusing on the hospital, rather than the water system, as the source of the problem. The state says that "the supply water coming from the city of Flint is not contributing to the Legionella issues at McLaren [hospital] and any issues are likely internal to the hospital system," according to MLive.

The findings have big implications for water managers in Flint and beyond. Amy Pruden, a Virginia Tech researcher, explained why the data points to a problem with potentially enormous scope.

“This is a significant find and another piece of evidence that links the switch to the Flint River as a drinking water source to the Legionnaires disease outbreak,” she said, per Michigan Radio. She explained that the new data “could represent how widespread the bacteria was in city water,” MLive reported.

“Pruden's own 2016 study found Legionella bacteria levels in Flint tap water were up to 1,000 times higher than normal,” Michigan Radio reported.

The state’s position is that many questions remain unresolved, MLive reported:

Dr. Eden Wells, the state's chief medical executive, said [the state health department] hasn't been able to determine with certainty how the Legionnaires' patient never hospitalized at McLaren was exposed to the same bacteria strain found in hospital water, calling it an open "medical detective case (that) requires a lot of sleuthing."

"Do we know what the linkage is?" Wells asked. "Not at this time."