The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, may have officially turned deadly. After fears that the lead-tainted water in the city might be causing illness in children, MLive reported on Thursday (Jan. 14) that a spike in cases of Legionella bacteria (which causes Legionnaires disease) was detected between June 2014 and March 2015, resulting in 45 cases of Legionella, 7 of which were fatal. Another 42 cases were detected from May 2015 to November 2015, with three fatalities.
Legionnaires is a type of pneumonia that can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics. It typically affects older people and symptoms include shortness of breath, diarrhea, headaches, fever, chills and a cough. A drinking water expert who studied Flint and was a key member of the team that exposed the water contamination said the rise in Legionnaires is "dramatic" (though only half of the dead drank the water) and said there's a "strong likelihood" that the tainted river water was a culprit.
At press time officials said there was no clear evidence linking the Legionnaires outbreak with the tainted water system that has caused elevated lead levels in local children and led to Gov. Rick Snyder declaring a state of emergency earlier this month. In the years before the water crisis there were reportedly between 6-13 cases of Legionnaires, which is typically spread by a mist that comes through a water source, often an air conditioning system.
The crisis began in April 2014 when the chronically cash-strapped city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River in an effort officials said would save $19 million over the next 8 years. Not long after, residents started complaining that their water had a weird color, taste and smell. After a Flint pediatrician reported in September that a study found children in the area exhibiting lead levels in their blood at double the previous rate, the state at first questioned her findings before eventually capitulating.
On Oct. 1, local officials declared a public health emergency and warned residents not to drink or bathe in the city's water until approved water filters were installed in their homes. One week later, Snyder said the city would reconnect to the Detroit water system, though experts warned that the harmful chemicals and lead that and been pumped into homes and businesses for nearly two years had left dangerous residue behind in water pipes.
Snyder activated the National Guard on Tuesday to help with the situation and has asked the Federal Emergency Management Association for assistance as well.
Snyder has also inspired high-profile environmentalist (and Flint-native) Michael Moore to pen a petition calling for the governor's arrest and resignation.