Wayne State to test Flint water for Legionella

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

More than a year after the Flint water supply was identified as a likely culprit in the community’s fatal Legionnaires’ outbreak, the water is finally going to get tested for the disease.

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Wayne State University is launching a study Tuesday to evaluate the possible link between changes in Flint’s water system and the recent disease outbreak.

The study will be conducted by a research group known as the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, made up of Wayne State experts in environmental engineering and public health.

It comes in the wake of the Legionnaires’ outbreak that sickened 87 people and killed nine over the course of two time periods: from June 2014 through March 2015, and May 2015 through November 2015.

Flint changed its water source from Detroit water to the Flint River in April 2014 but it has not been established that the water change was linked to the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease — a respiratory disease caused by a bacteria in warm fresh water that sometimes leads to pneumonia and even death. Exposure to the bacteria can come from hot tubs, large plumbing systems, air-conditioning units and fountains.

The Detroit News reported Feb. 24 that Flint’s water had never been tested for Legionella, despite being identified in fall 2014 as a likely source of the disease outbreak.

“Our number one goal at this early stage of the study is to connect with the people of Flint and Genesee County and build strong partnerships that will benefit the entire community,” said Shawn McElmurry, an WSU environmental and civil engineering professor who will lead the study. “Our team has been in contact with Mayor (Karen) Weaver’s office and community organizations in Flint, and we look forward to working closely with these and other partners.”

The study’s first phase will include researchers working with residents to set up disease and environmental surveillance in Flint and Genesee County.

Programs to help inform the Flint community about health issues related to Legionella will be led by Matthew Seeger, a WSU communication professor who’s a crisis and emergency risk expert.

Flint Water Crisis

Dr. Marcus Zervos, division head of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Hospital, will lead a study to define clinical cases, characterize patient exposure and support a strong partnership with Flint health organizations.

The research group also will include three teams of technical experts: engineering and water quality, led by McElmurry; public health and epidemiological investigation, led by Dr. Paul Kilgore, a pharmacy practice associate professor who has headed investigations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and community engagement, led by Kettering University mechanical engineering professor Laura Sullivan.

“We fully expect the scope of our research to evolve as we get more input from the community and government in the coming months,” said McElmurrry. “We have assembled a very talented group of researchers with different expertise and backgrounds so we can be nimble in our response to any change in direction the study may take.”