Heroic Doctor Faces Down Dirty Politics: As Death Toll Rises In Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha On Her Fight To Expose Lead Poisoning In City


Democracy Now! (7/26/18)

A new report by PBS “Frontline” has found the death toll from the water crisis in Flint may be higher than Michigan officials have acknowledged. The state has admitted 12 people died following an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease after the city switched its water supply to the Flint River in an attempt to save money. But according to PBS “Frontline,” the city also saw a spike in pneumonia deaths during the water crisis. Some of these deaths may have actually been caused by Legionnaires’ disease. Between April 2014 and October 2015, 119 people died of pneumonia in Flint—a jump of 46 percent from that same time period a year earlier.

More than a dozen state and city officials are facing criminal charges in part for failing to alert the public to the risk of Legionnaires’ disease during the Flint water crisis. On Wednesday, Nick Lyon, the former head of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was in court for a hearing to determine whether he will stand trial on manslaughter charges. We speak to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped expose the dangerous levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water after she tested blood lead levels in children. Her new book is titled “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.”

Link to Story, Transcript and 22-Minute Video


Flint Water Crisis Deaths Likely Surpass Official Toll


By Kayla Ruble, Jacob Carah, Abby Ellis & Sarah Childress
PBS Frontline (7/26/18)

The death toll in Flint, Michigan, from contaminated water may be much higher than state health officials have acknowledged, an ongoing FRONTLINE investigation has found. The likely killer: Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria.

Officially, 90 people were sickened and 12 died from exposure to waterborne legionella bacteria during the 18 months that the city of Flint drew its water from the Flint River in 2014 and 2015. But FRONTLINE’s investigation has found 119 deaths from pneumonia during that time, some of which scientists say could actually have been caused by legionella. The tally is based on an extensive review of death records and interviews with epidemiologists and other scientists who are experts in the field of infectious diseases.

If the death toll is higher, as the records and interviews suggest, a 15-month delay by state officials in notifying the community about the legionella outbreak may have cost even more lives than the deaths state prosecutors have cited in an ongoing criminal case. More than a dozen state and city officials, including from the Michigan state departments of health, and environmental quality, are facing criminal charges associated with failing to alert the public about the risks of legionella until well after the outbreak had subsided.

The city’s nearly 100,000 residents would learn that they and their children had been exposed to toxic levels of lead that had leached into the water from corroded pipes. In the meantime, residents were coming down with other symptoms. 

“The worst case scenario is when [doctors] don’t realize a bacterial infection is present in the water,” said Dr. Victor Yu, a former professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who helped prove in 1982 that legionella outbreaks can stem from bacteria in drinking water. “Whenever drinking water is involved” you should treat patients assuming that they have Legionnaires’ without waiting for definitive results, he said, “because it takes so long to run tests.

“People can die waiting.”

The idea that there were more legionella deaths than previously reported has also been raised in court by Todd Flood, the state-appointed special prosecutor overseeing the criminal investigation. Flood recently introduced a stack of death certificates showing that deaths from pneumonia in Flint skyrocketed in the months after the city switched its water source. He also argued in court that some of those deaths could be misdiagnosed cases of Legionnaires’ disease connected to the outbreak.

Clear, willful & wanton disregard

On July 25, a judge was expected to determine whether to allow Flood to bring involuntary manslaughter charges against Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, for his role in the crisis. At the hearing, Judge David Goggins delayed his ruling to August 20, saying he needed more time to review materials. The case centers around two Legionnaires’ patients who died after contracting the disease during the Flint outbreak: Robert Skidmore and John Snyder.

Flood declined to comment, but said in court earlier this month that the high number of pneumonia deaths underscored the severity of the case: “There was a clear, willful and wanton disregard… knowing that someone was going to get sick, someone was going to die,” he said. “And they sat on the information, and that being specifically Director Nick Lyon.”

Lyon’s attorney, John Bursch, told FRONTLINE there’s no merit to the charges against his client. “The prosecutor’s theory is that Director Lyon caused two individuals to contract Legionnaires’ and die because of his failure to make a public announcement regarding the Legionnaires’ outbreak,” he said. “There’s no evidence that anybody would have done anything different.”

FRONTLINE’s analysis examined six years of death records in Flint and the surrounding Genesee County, and included door-to-door interviews with victims’ families. It showed an unusual uptick in pneumonia deaths in the city at the same time as the legionella outbreak. During the 18-month period when the city was using Flint River water — April 2014 through October 2015 — pneumonia killed 119 people in the city of Flint, up more than 46 percent from that same time period a year earlier, according to the data. The extent of any possible overlap between the 12 reported legionella deaths and these pneumonia deaths is unclear. The state has released little information about the Legionnaires’ victims.

Five epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists who reviewed the data say the timing, coupled with the fact that the deaths rose in the summer when legionella flourishes, shows that at least some of those 119 deaths are likely attributed to Legionnaires’ disease. …

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