Researchers move forward on Flint water, health study

Karen Bouffard The Detroit News

Wayne State University has been awarded a $3.1 million grant for an 18-month study to find out if a recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in Flint was linked to changes in the city’s water system.

Researchers from Wayne State and other institutions will test water samples collected from 284 homes in Flint in search of deadly Legionella bacteria. Participants include Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Flint’s Kettering University, the University of Colorado, Henry Ford Health System and the Genesee County Health Department.

More than 90 Flint-area residents came down with Legionnaires’ in 2014 and 2015, resulting in 12 deaths. Scientists have questioned whether the spike was linked to the city’s switch from Lake Huron to Flint River water in April 2014.

Scientists will compare the number and type of Legionella bacteria found at the Flint homes with pathogens found in water samples taken at homes elsewhere in Genesee County and Michigan. Some scientists have speculated that changes in Flint water may have produced a more virulent variety of Legionella bacteria in Flint.

More than 850 homes will be tested in all, according to Shawn McElmurry, an associate professor in WSU’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

“Those comparisons will allow us to see if whether what we’re seeing in Flint is unique, or if this is abnormal and something else is going on,” McElmurry said. “One of the questions that hasn’t been addressed is ‘Is the presence of Legionella (in Flint) different than everywhere else.’ ”

The study began in March with a $125,000 planning grant from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The first part of the study, completed in May, included an assessment of what resources were needed in Flint and Genesee County to understand the risk of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.

Environmental sampling, testing and monitoring of water in Flint households will be led by McElmurry, who has who has led multiple sampling campaigns in the city to evaluate and monitor the city’s water. Paul Kilgore, from WSU’s Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, will work with local health care providers, the Genesee County Health Department and state and federal partners to reach populations most at risk for Legionnaires’ disease.

McElmurry noted that Flint water is not the same as it was last year, due to treatments that have been applied to reduce corrosiveness and improve the quality of Flint’s water. Failure to treat the Flint River water with corrosion control chemicals is believed to have caused lead from pipes to seep into the city’s water supply.

The News reported in March that Flint’s water was never been tested for Legionella despite being identified in fall 2014 as a likely source of the Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak.

“We may never be able to tell whether or not a change in water had an impact on the number of cases (of Legionnaires’ Disease) because there was not enough data collected,” McElmurry said.