Compliments of Detroit News
Sixteen months after it was identified as a likely source of a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak, Flint’s water supply still hasn’t been tested for the Legionella bacteria.
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.
Experts say the lack of a water evaluation made it impossible to know if the city’s new water source contributed to the respiratory disease outbreak that sickened 87 people between May 2014 and November 2015, killing nine. And to date, no source for the bacteria has been determined.
In March 2015, the state Department of Environmental Quality considered taking samples from Flint’s water system to be tested for Legionella at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ laboratory. But neither agency followed through.
That same month, the Environmental Protection Agency also suggested city water should be tested for Legionella during an EPA meeting about the outbreak and expressed that opinion to the DEQ in an email reviewed by The Detroit News. Again, no testing was done.
Experts, including Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor whose research uncovered the problem of lead contamination in Flint water, argue the municipal water should have been tested for Legionella because the outbreak could be tied to changes in the water system. Genesee County Environmental Health Supervisor Jim Henry also called for such testing. Experts say had the source of the Legionella been confirmed as the water system, targeted chlorine treatments could have been applied to kill the bacteria.
“MDEQ should have done such testing, especially after they were alerted to Legionella problems by the Genesee County Health Department,” Edwards said. “Better yet, they should have allowed CDC to come in and do that testing for them.”
Besides the state’s DEQ and health department, the federal EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also confirm to The News they’ve done no water testing for Legionella in Flint. The Genesee County Health Department says it does not have the expertise to do so.
The reasons why Flint’s water supply wasn’t tested aren’t entirely clear, although the local, state and federal agencies now largely blame each other or claim that typical procedures don’t involve testing municipal water supplies.