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Water expert: McLaren Flint’s Legionnaires’ disease problem made worse by Flint water crisis

Published: Jan. 13, 2021 at 6:29 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - The switch to draw Flint’s drinking water from the Flint River in 2014 was supposed to save the city money, but the decision is blamed for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at McLaren Flint Hospital, among other health concerns.

As ABC12 reported on Tuesday, a letter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says the hospital was a source of legionella bacteria for more than a decade -- and six years before the Flint water crisis.

The letter is dated December of 2019, but was never made public until this week.

Since airing a story detailing contents of the letter on Tuesday evening, ABC12 heard from water experts from across the world. The letter doesn’t answer a key question -- did the Flint water crisis cause an uptick in Legionnaires’ disease cases in Genesee County or did it make an existing problem worse?

“Very likely, what happened was the switchover exacerbated conditions that were already there,” said Tim Keane, a consulting engineer on legionella.

For two decades, he’s been tasked with identifying issues within water systems to determine if that system is a source for legionella growth.

“McLaren already had issues with their water systems, when it was audited by CDC that identified temperature issues, circulation issues. So those were all in existence, prior to the outbreak,” Keane said.

Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia that results from the legionella bacteria, which occur naturally in water. The bacteria can proliferate in concealed spaces with and infect people who inhale microscopic droplets.

A total of 90 Legionnaires’ cases were reported around the Flint area in 2014 and 2015 after the water switch. A least a dozen people died of the illness and state regulators said a majority of the cases are connected to McLaren Flint.

The hospital has maintained the outbreak was caused by the water source switch. But the CDC letter released Tuesday says the hospital has been a source of the legionella bacteria from 2008 through 2019 -- predating the water crisis.

Keane wasn’t surprised the issue has persisted for more than a decade. He says McLaren Flint’s location within the city, at the end of the water distribution system, naturally gives the hospital a high water aging issue.

“That means you’re at the end of the system and you know about stuff rolling downhill,” he said. “So you’ll not only have less disinfectant, you’ll have crud building up. I’ve flushed out these mains at high velocity, where you get this septic, nasty crud that’s coming out because it’s settled over a period of months.”

So Keane said that’s how the water source switch exacerbated McLaren’s existing problem.

The Flint Water Plant did not properly treat the Flint River water after the 2014 switch away from Detroit’s water system and left out corrosion controls. Keane said the chlorine used to treat the water and control the bacteria becomes non-existent at the end of the distribution, where McLaren is located.

“This lack of disinfectant residual turned what was likely few cases unidentified, into a large cluster,” he said.

McLaren Flint responded Wednesday with a statement reiterating the hospital’s stance that the water source switch is to blame for the uptick in Legionnaires’ disease cases -- even noting the timing of the letter being made public. Here is the full text of the hospital’s statement:

“It is unfortunate that once again – on the eve of a significant legal event – former state officials and their allies have chosen to manipulate the facts in attempt to distract the public from the facts.

McLaren Flint, like countless other Flint residents, businesses, and nonprofit organizations, was significantly impacted by the far-reaching and damaging effects of the decision to transition the public water supply to the Flint River. Despite the selective sharing of information that has been publicly available for more than a year, there is clear and compelling evidence the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in Flint were much broader than one single hospital building. As multiple experts in peer-reviewed studies have concluded, our city’s water infrastructure – and many buildings that depended on it to receive safe drinking water – had an ongoing problem with legionella that resulted from the decision to change the municipal water source.

To suggest that McLaren Flint has been a source of a particular strain of legionella bacteria associated with the disease for more than a decade is false and grossly misleading. Legionella is a naturally occurring bacteria commonly found in many older buildings with complex water systems. It has been found in the water systems of churches, universities, nursing homes and other buildings throughout our community. In fact, according to MDHHS’ own data, 98.5% of Legionnaires’ disease cases reported between 2016 and 2018 had no connection to any health care facility.

The fact remains that since the earliest days of the water crisis, McLaren Flint has done the right thing – transparently sharing information with public health authorities and asking for their guidance as cases in our community grew. As a result of our intense clinical surveillance along with our work with the current administration at MDHHS, we maintain one of the most comprehensive water management plans in the state. In fact, during the last year while cases of Legionnaires’ disease were detected throughout the county, our hospital recorded zero cases.

It is disappointing that our hospital is once again being forced to defend itself against this false and misleading narrative advanced by these individuals and their defenders as they prepare to face criminal charges, in some cases, for a second time.”

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