The Flint area has seen a spike in Legionnaires' disease, connection to Flint River unknown

Jan 13, 2016

There has been a spike in Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area, and state officials say it's unclear whether the spike is related to the contaminated water in Flint.

The potentially fatal respiratory disease is caused by Legionella, a type of bacterium found naturally in fresh water. 

The CDC says it can grow in the water of hot tubs, air conditioning units, hot water tanks, fountains, and large plumbing systems.

Dr. Eden Wells, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive, said they have confirmed 87 cases of Legionnaires' disease from June 2014 to November 2015 in the Flint area.

Ten of those cases resulted in death. 

The Detroit News reports that Genesee County usually has far fewer cases:

Genesee County had about eight to 10 cases annually during a four-year to five-year period until a spike in the fall of 2014, said Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, Dr. Wells said that while Legionnaires' disease cases are not uncommon:

"We are concerned about the increase in cases seen in Genesee County,” said Eden Wells, M.D., chief medical executive with the MDHHS. “We are releasing this report and continuing surveillance and investigations to ensure that appropriate actions are being taken to protect the health of the residents of Flint."

The presence of this bacteria was on the minds of other researchers last fall.

As Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reported last October, researchers from Virginia Tech were in Flint looking for the presence of these "opportunistic pathogens."

“Our initial sampling did not find a worse problem in Flint than in other cities, but we are looking harder, before the switch (back to water from Detroit),” says Marc Edwards, with Virginia Tech University.

A diagram from Marc Edwards showing a possible connection between the spike in Legionnaires' disease and Flint's corroded water system.
Credit Mark Edwards / Virginia Tech

Upon hearing the news of the spike in Legionnaires' disease, Marc Edwards posted an explanation of how a lack of corrosion control in the water system in Flint could have exacerbated the problem.

Edwards posted an FAQ on his site last night saying he believes the disease is no longer as big a threat in the Flint area:

We agree with DHHS that this problem, is probably behind us all, even it if was caused by the Flint River water. It is safe to shower now whether you are an adult or a child. When we say “safe,” we mean it is no riskier to shower in Flint now than in any other U.S. city.

State officials say they are "treating this situation with the same urgency and transparency as the lead response in the city of Flint."

Officials are urging residents to continue to use bottled water and to use water filters in their home.

Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency on Jan. 5. He activated the National Guard last night. He's also requested support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond to the Flint water crisis.

*This post was last updated on January 13 at 6:55 a.m.