Lead-contaminated water isn’t the only toxin sickening residents of Flint, Michigan. Since the city switched its water source from Detroit’s water system to the local Flint River in April 2014 — a water source left dangerously untreated for corrosive elements — the city has seen a sizable uptick in cases of Legionnaires disease. The waterborne bacterial infection, which usually afflicts around 13 people a year in Flint’s Genessee County, has infected at least 87 residents — and left ten dead — since June 2014.
However, no state or federal agency has decided to test the water for the deadly bacteria.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) announced this spike in Legionnaires cases last month, but refused to directly connect the outbreak to the water crisis.
“There’s investigations still going on to try and make that determination,” Snyder said at the January 13 press conference. “But from a scientific or medical point of view, I don’t believe that determination can be made today.”
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, these cases cannot be conclusively linked to Flint’s water because the agency lacks bacteria samples from the patients. This claim was quickly negated by Detroit News reporters, who discovered that the agency in fact has 12 samples from Flint patients.
“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,” wrote Michigan Democratic Party chair Brandon Dillon in a news release calling on Snyder to resign. “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 unforgivable.”
The same researchers who discovered the brain-damaging levels of lead in Flint’s water source said that the corrosive water additionally devoured the chlorine the city added to its drinking water to kill dangerous bacteria. This would easily let Legionnaires — and a multitude of other unwanted bacteria — pour through residents’ faucets.
An investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that all five government agencies aware of the Legionnaires outbreak decided not to test the water, despite impassioned requests by the county department of health. In frustration, county officials went around their state superiors to ask the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC) for assistance. In an email, a CDC official called the Flint area outbreak “very large, one of the largest we know of in the past decade and community-wide, and in our opinion and experience it needs a comprehensive investigation.”
But the state intervened, telling the CDC “that they had the skills and resources needed to perform the investigation themselves.” And nothing happened.
“Frustration is an understatement,” Genesee County Health director Jim Henry told CNN. “You could see that it was an intentional, deliberate method to prevent us from doing our job.”
Leaving the water untested for the Legionnaire bacteria keeps the agencies and government leaders — who are already under attack for their serious neglect in informing the public about the shocking levels of lead — temporarily safe from facing more charges of failure.
Henry said he hates the impersonal way these agencies have treated the growing number of Legionnaires outbreaks.
“They refer to ’em as cases. They refer to ’em as numbers,” he told CNN. “They refer to ’em as just — just a number. And these are families.”