Lead researcher Dr. Jeffrey Griffiths of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, who serves as a professor of public health and medicine, explained that his team analyzed 100 million Medicare records dated between 1991 and 2006. During that time, over 617,000 Americans had been hospitalized due to infection resulting from exposure to Legionella, which is responsible for Legionnaires’ disease; pseudomonas, which can develop into pneumonia; and mycobacteria, which can cause tuberculosis among other illnesses. These bacteria can live in pipes and survive on small amounts of nutrients found in water.
Although most often water treatment plants are in place to help combat these dangerous bacteria, the distance between treatment plants and the average home still poses a threat. The treatment chemicals are typically so far diluted by the time they reach the average home, and thus gives the water ample opportunity to still become contaminated along its journey through a water system. Additionally, some of these bacteria are resistant to one or more antibiotics.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan serves as a perfect example for this sort of problem. The city changed its water source and utilized pipes that were old and corroding, exposing thousands to lead and bacteria that caused the area’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. The U.S. Senate on September 15, 2016, approved a $9 billion bill that would designate funds for various water infrastructure in 17 states. This bill, called the Water Resources Development Act, may or may not pass in the House of Representatives.
Ideally, replacement of all corroding water systems in the U.S. would basically eliminate this problem altogether. However, the cost that would be involved makes the idea completely impractical. Methods to combat this issue should be brought on a smaller scale, like superheating water in facilities to eliminate the bacteria, especially where those exposed to bacteria would be more susceptible to developing illness – such as hospitals and nursing homes.
While the mission for cleaner water in the U.S. appears to be an uphill battle, the Flint, Michigan water crisis exemplifies the real threat that unclean water poses to the general public. With more research and more funding headed in the clean water direction, hopefully another crisis on the Flint scale could be avoided.
Jules Zacher is an attorney in Philadelphia who has tried Legionnaires’ disease cases across the U.S. Please visit LegionnaireLawyer.com for updates to this post or for more information on Legionnaires’ disease.