Experts: Water shutoffs causing public health emergency

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — A panel of experts, including physicians, called for a declaration of a public health emergency in the city on Wednesday and have accused city health officials of ignoring a hospital study which found a correlation between water shutoffs and water-related illnesses.

Doctors, educators, civil rights advocates and a resident whose water was shut off gathered at Wayne State University Law School to discuss the findings of a Henry Ford Hospital study published in April that examined hospital patient samples with skin and soft tissue infections and water-borne bacterial infections.

In the study, performed by three Henry Ford researchers using block-level address data, 37,441 cases of water-borne illness in Detroit were analyzed and compared with Detroit addresses whose water was shut off during the same time period, officials said.

Patients diagnosed with skin and soft tissue diseases were 1.48 times more likely to live on a block that experienced water shutoffs, officials said on Wednesday.

“That should be a call for action,” said Peter Hammer, director of Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. “Henry Ford Hospital should be proud of its study. Instead, if you look at media relations, they are backpedaling faster than I have ever seen from the work of researchers and are very willing to through them under the bus.”

“And that leads to a very basic question: Why?” Hammer asked.

Hammer said he could only speculate but “if you look at all the development Henry Ford is engaged in, it is very worried about its relationship to the planning department, the City Council, the mayor. One could speculate they are yielding to that political pressure trying to suppress the health information coming out.”

“Standard epidemiologists are going to defend that study,” he said, and the hospital media office is distancing itself, and “that doesn’t make any sense on its face.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is up for re-election.

On Wednesday, Dr. Marcus Zervos, division head of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Hospital and senior author of the study, responded to the group’s demand for a public health emergency declaration by saying more research is needed and taking issue with using the study for political reasons.

“As the senior author on this project, I am disheartened by the reaction of activist groups. We approached this issue as an exploratory effort into the possible public health impact of water shutoffs, understanding that the results would only be preliminary and shape the framework for a future comprehensive cause and effect study,” Zervos said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this study continues to be used for political purposes and our health system’s integrity is being unfairly challenged. This is unacceptable.”

Zervos said the hospital has said there were multiple limitations and challenges with the study process, including the data set obtained from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department being incomplete. The addresses had been partially redacted and only the first two numbers of the address were included, he said

“This means we could not identify which specific houses experienced a water shutoff. We could not evaluate what directly caused an individual’s illness, meaning we could not make any association between a patient’s infection and water shutoffs,” Zervos said.

“It’s reasonable to conclude that there would be some impact to public health caused by water shutoffs. We believe more research is needed and will continue to consider options for the development of a definitive research project,” he said.

Hammer also said the city’s health department director has failed to respond to the study.

Gary Brown, director of Detroit’s water department, said in a Wednesday statement that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the city are committed to helping Detroiters keep their water service on.

“In 2014, we launched the city’s first assistance program to do just that,” Brown said.

In the last 18 months, Brown said the city has provided $8 million in financial assistance through its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WARP, to 6,300 customers who have had difficulty paying their bills. Another 22,000 customers have kept their water on by getting into an affordable payment plan.

Because of the programs, 82 percent of customers who were at risk of shut off this year have been taken off that list, Brown said. If a customer does experience a service interruption, 90 percent of the time their service is restored within 48 hours after they come into a customer service center to seek assistance or apply for a payment plan, he said.

“We encourage members of the community to help get others who may not be aware of our assistance programs into one of our customer service centers immediately so their water service can be restored,” Brown said.

Dr. Wendy Johnson, clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington, said at the press conference that Detroit water shutoffs are a public health crisis.

“Water-related diseases are now occurring in Detroit as the result of water shutoffs,” Johnson said.

“Access to clean and safe water is a basic human right that is essential from a public health standpoint to prevent infectious diseases. We have run out of time and solutions must be immediate.”

Johnson said the connection between a lack of water and illness is not rocket science: People without access to water are not washing their hands as often and are at higher risk of contagious diseases and water-borne illness, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

“It (MRSA) is very contagious and more likely to occur when you can’t practice good hygiene,” she said.

They suffer more from dehydration, which puts diabetics and heart disease patients at higher risk of serious illness, she said. People who don’t have water can’t easily cook at home and have a healthy diet and resort to fast food.

And then there are the mental health effects, Johnson said.

“How can I get a job if I can’t clean my clothes, take a shower or eat? How can I go to school?” she said.

The discussion was co-hosted by We the People of Detroit, a nonprofit organization that promotes community coalition building for the residents of Detroit to improve their quality of life.

Detroit resident Rochelle Weatherspoon’s water was shut off twice in 2014. The first time was for eight days. The second time was when she arrived home from the hospital after being treated for MRSA.

“I found out by trying to wash my hands in the bathroom. I had soap on my hands and no water,” she said Wednesday.

Weatherspoon has since had her water turned back on but came to the press conference to tell the public that people need water in their homes.

“I’ve had health issues, and I continue to have health issues. There are people out there who are just not able to pay,” she said.

In April, the city’s water department resumed the controversial practice of shutting off water service on some of the nearly 18,000 residential customers with delinquent accounts. That total had dropped to 1,000 by June, according to officials.

The Detroit shutoffs resumed after notices went out 10 days earlier, Brown told The News in April.

While 17,995 households were vulnerable to having their water turned off, those residents who contact the water department prior to their scheduled shutoffs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan will avoid being cut off — and most do, the water department noted.

And the number of delinquent accounts is down from the 24,302 facing a service interruption last April, according to water department figures. In April 2014, 40,000 were eligible for shutoff.

In June, the city’s water department did, however, implement policy for a moratorium on shutting off water for delinquent residential accounts when temperatures exceed 90 degrees.

In 2014, the water department shut off a total of 30,064 delinquent residential accounts. It turned off 15,461 in 2015 and 30,496 in 2016, according to figures obtained by The News under the Freedom of Information Act.