The health crisis that developed over the past year in Flint, Michigan has been widely publicized due to it’s devastating impact on the population of the city, and the clear missteps taken by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) when implementing the switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a source of water. The corrosive water of the Flint River deteriorated old lead water systems resulting in a rush of contaminated water to the Flint population. Since then, a spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases, lead poisoning, and numerous other health issues have been major concerns prompting President Obama to declare a state of emergency in Genesee County on January 16th, 2016 allowing emergency aid funds to be directed towards providing clean bottled water to the city.
Although it’s clear that the increase in the number of Legionnaires’ disease cases correlates to the change in water source, there may be a few different explanations why this happened. The water in the Flint River, like many rivers, can naturally house the Legionella bacteria. The MDEQ did not properly treat or test the water when it entered the city and therefore it could have come directly from the river. However, the water being pumped from the Flint River was also channeled through a maze of old lead pipes, many of which had not been used in years. Legionella bacteria may have been present in these old pipes and connected with the water when it was pumped through. Regardless of the means by which the Legionella bacteria made its way into Flint, it has harmed a large group of individuals.
From June 2014 to November 2015, 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease were reported with 10 of those cases resulting in death. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) denies that there is any evidence linking the water source switch and the outbreak, but an article by MLive Media Group purports that the officials in charge of the project were aware of the risk, but did not present them to the public.
An article from the Detroit Free Press indicated that, as of November 2015, 4 families have filed a lawsuit against state and local officials citing gross negligence resulting in a variety of serious health problems. Of the health problems that arose, the most pressing seems to be the widespread spike in lead levels which can have lifelong effects on developing young children. Legionnaires’ disease is also a serious issue, but usually affects older or immuno-suppresed populations. Typically government entities are protected from lawsuits by an immunity statute that prevents citizens from suing government programs that they think are not being run properly. However, some circumstances such as “gross negligence” constitute acceptable grounds to file suit, which is what some families in Flint have done.
Flint is under harsh scrutiny due to the negligence of its officials, and rightfully so. While the move to source water from Flint River was intended as a temporary measure, it is clear that the efforts put in to ensure the safety of the citizens in Flint were abysmal.
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