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Expert says Legionnaires' no longer a risk in Flint; EPA buried concerns over water

Jan 14, 2016

Researchers at Virginia Tech received samples of Flint water (both clear and discolored) from residents. Dr. Edwards and his team there were among the first to call attention to lead contamination in Flint's water.
Credit Flint Water Study / Facebook

The Flint water crisis has taken a new turn, with Governor Snyder's announcement that there's been an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Flint.

Genesee County had 87 cases of Legionnaires', with ten deaths between June 2014 and November 2015. Prior years only saw between six and 10 cases.

The outbreak started soon after the city switched to water from the Flint River, and ended after it went back to Detroit water.

Still, Governor Snyder says it isn't clear whether the two are connected, saying there are "investigations still going on to try and make those determinations, but from a scientific or medical point of view, I don't believe that determination can be made today."

Marc Edwards, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, is a nationally renowned expert on water treatment and corrosion. Edwards and his team were among the first to call attention to the lead contamination in Flint's water.

He’s not at all surprised by the news about the spike in Legionnaire’s disease in Flint.

"Research ... published last year actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen," said Edwards.

"Research by Dr. Amy Prudent and myself and our team here at Virginia Tech published last year actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen," Edwards said. "Now, this is a new result, but the general idea is that the lack of corrosion control in the Flint system ate up the disinfectant, the chlorine that’s normally put in the water to kill these bacteria and it also caused the release of iron to the water. And so those two factors in our laboratory experiments dramatically increased the amount of Legionella that grew in water heaters and hot water systems."

Edwards clarifies that “it’s not 100% sure” that the outbreak of Legionnaires' is tied to the change to Flint River water, but the correlation “looks very strong.”

He does not believe that people in Flint are still at risk of the disease.

“We agree with the governor’s office and the Department [of Health & Human Services] that this is probably a problem of the past," he says. "They are being vigilant in looking at this and tracking this with the local health department, but there is every reason to think that the levels of Legionella in the system will now return back to where they were before the problems occurred in 2014 summer and 2015.”

Gov. Snyder announced that he learned of the Legionnaires' spike only a few days before making the news public Wednesday. Edwards tells us this “absolutely” exhibits greater responsiveness and transparency on the part of the governor.

“Everyone is taking this issue very, very seriously,” he says. “We contributed our data on Legionella in the Flint system to the process, I think it was mid to early December [of 2015], and I think they responded very quickly.”

"The EPA buried this problem. The record is absolutely clear. They've been in this up to their eyeballs since early July."

But Edwards criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its slow response to the crisis in Flint. The EPA's Miguel del Toral tried to get the state to address the corrosion treatment question. In email and memos, he consistently spelled out his many concerns about the lead corrosion problem in Flint. 

Edwards says del Toral was essentially sidelined by his own agency.

"The EPA buried this problem. The record is absolutely clear. They've been in this up to their eyeballs since early July," Edwards says.

In fact, he tells us, much of the blame falling on Governor Snyder and former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling can be directly traced to the actions of the EPA Region 5 Administrator. 

"[Del Toral is] not just any employee, he is recognized as the foremost expert on the Lead and Copper Rule in the United States. And his concerns were completely buried and brushed off, and EPA never communicated to either the governor or to the mayor of Flint that his concerns should be taken seriously. Instead they apologized for what he did."

Marc Edwards tells us more about Flint’s water situation in our conversation above.

Clarification: In the interview, Marc Edwards identified Susan Hedman as an EPA Administrator. Susan Hedman, more specifically, is the EPA Region 5 Administrator.