A new study by a team at Virginia Tech has linked the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint, MI to the city’s decision to switch its water supply.
Flint suffered a surge in cases of Legionnaires’ disease from 2014 to 2015, with nearly 100 people sickened and 12 deaths. The death toll could have been higher, as Legionnaires’ disease often masquerades as pneumonia and goes unreported. Health officials assumed that the city’s decision to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River was to blame, but no tests were done at the time of the outbreak. (An investigation into the decision not to test for Legionella is ongoing.)
The potential Legionella contamination was soon overshadowed by national news about Flint’s lead poisoning crisis. As public awareness has grown, however, organizations have begun to fund studies and programs to stop the spread of Legionnaires’ disease . Now, a new study has shown that homes that switched to water from the Flint river had concentrations of Legionella that were about seven times as high as homes that kept their original water sources. Furthermore, no chlorine was detectable in homes that made the switch, meaning that the water was not protected from new Legionella contamination.
There are many possible reasons for the increased concentration of Legionella bacteria. Even when water is properly chlorinated, iron corrosion in older water infrastructure can cause chlorine to lose its disinfectant power. This means that the older pipes in many buildings were making chlorine a less effective killer of bacteria. In addition, Legionella bacteria feed on the iron in the pipes. The temperature of the Flint River, which is warmer than that of Lake Huron, also made the city’s water system a hospitable temperature for Legionella. When the Flint River’s corrosive water dissolved the protective lining of the city’s pipes, it released nutrients and created an ideal environment for the growth of Legionella.
The VT team notes that better collection of information at the time of the water switch could have allowed health officials to offer timely solutions or at least inform the public about the crisis:
“Unfortunately, federal guidelines contain no specific monitoring requirements for Legionella to be performed by water utilities, providing little incentive for data collection, and failing to provide guidance to cities in crisis, such as Flint, wishing to proactively prevent outbreaks. Such monitoring might be conducted routinely by utilities in large publicly owned buildings representing a high risk for Legionella colonization.”
More information is available here.
Jules Zacher is an attorney in Philadelphia who has tried Legionnaires’ disease cases across the U.S. Please visit LegionnaireLawyer.com again for updates.