Health officials in Michigan are investigating an unusually large spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease — a respiratory disease caused by Legionella bacteria — that could be related to an ongoing water crisis in the Flint area.
There have been 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease reported in Genesee County, where Flint is located, over the past year and a half. Ten deaths have been linked to those cases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Legionella bacteria is found naturally in fresh, warm water. People may be exposed when they breathe in water droplets from sources home to the bacteria — like hot tubs, large plumbing systems, and air-conditioning units in large buildings.
Residents in Flint have struggled to get access to clean water for the past two years, thanks to crumbling pipes and a tainted supply from a local river. Recent reports have concluded there’s now a disturbing level of lead in children’s bloodstreams — leading the governor to declare a state of emergency and deploy the National Guard to help pass out clean drinking water to the city’s 30,000 households.
Health officials have not yet confirmed whether the uptick in Legionnaires’ disease is related to the other water issues plaguing Flint. They believe the water in Genesee County is still safe to bathe in.
Still, they say the number of cases is troubling. “87 cases is a lot. That tells us that there is a source there that needs to be investigated,” Eden Wells, the chief medical executive for the state’s Health and Human Services Department, said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been criticized for being too slow to respond to Flint’s public health emergency. Email records suggest that his administration may have known about the elevated lead levels months ago and failed to act. This month, some residents unsuccessfully sought to launch a recall petition against him, claiming the governor’s actions are responsible for creating the current situation.