Clark's Remarks

The Flint Water Crisis and Legionellosis

Eighty-seven cases of Legionnaire’s disease, 10 of them fatal, in 17 months, compared with six to 13 cases in the four years prior, is disturbing.

Recently, I wrote about Legionnaire’s disease as a trend for 2016. Little did I expect it would become breaking news almost the very next day, when drinking-water contamination in Flint, Mich., began making headlines. Although state and federal officials maintain there is no clear evidence of a direct connection between Flint’s (not so) potable-water supply and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, 87 cases, 10 of them fatal, in 17 months, compared with six to 13 cases in the four years prior to the water supply becoming compromised, is disturbing. According to Eden Wells, chief medical executive for Michigan’s Health and Human Services Department: "Eighty-seven cases is a lot. That tells us that there is a source there that needs to be investigated."

ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 188-2015, Legionellosis: Risk Management for Building Water Systems, represents our industry’s best attempt to establish risk-management requirements for building water systems. Historically, most cases of Legionnaire’s disease have occurred when water mist contaminated with Legionnaires' disease bacteria (LDB) has been inhaled. Cooling towers have been recognized, along to a lesser degree with hot tubs and whirlpool spas, showers, and water features (such as decorative fountains), as the primary culprits in most of the reported cases. However, Dr. Joseph Cotruvo, a former official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Water, reported Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2009-2010 show 19 of 33 outbreaks of waterborne disease—resulting in 105 cases of Legionnaire’s disease and 14 fatalities—were associated with LDB in potable-water distribution and plumbing systems. Although U.S. drinking water is among the safest in the world, there clearly is some risk, particularly if adequate central and local water-treatment protocols are not followed, as seems to be the case in Flint.

For readers unfamiliar with the drinking-water issues there, Flint is an economically depressed city of about 100,000 people located on the Flint River, approximately 66 miles northwest of Detroit, in Genesee County. Until two years ago, Genesee County bought its water from Detroit, which took it from Lake Huron. To save a reported $19 million per year, the state made the decision to have the county obtain its water from the Flint River. Shortly after the change, residents started complaining about the appearance, odor, and taste of the water. Although testing revealed the water contained high levels of lead and iron, it was months before either the state or the EPA admitted the problem and took action. In fact, an EPA water expert began investigating the water contamination in February 2015, confirmed his suspicions in April 2015, and wrote a memo to the local ranking EPA official, who, instead of acting immediately, quietly fought with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for at least six months about what should be done.

It wasn’t until Jan. 5 of this year that a state of emergency for Genesee County was declared, and now National Guard troops are providing bottled water to residents. As a proud Hokie, I’m pleased to report it was a Virginia Tech researcher—Dr. Marc Edwards—who used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the documents that exposed the cover-up. Now, the political and legal fallout has begun, with calls for the mayor’s removal from office, threats of a class-action suit by residents, and the resignation of at least one senior EPA official. I wonder how many of the individuals who made those bad decisions were professional engineers, licensed plumbers, or water-treatment specialists? The involvement of such professionals might have made a difference.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Jan 27, 2016


So glad you brought this issue to light. A very important issue is happening there.

I know in the interests of saving space, much is omitted in the article, but one fact of importance here is that the article makes it appear just one person was involved as the person responsible for keeping things hush all last year. Oh, but there is much more.

To be brief since this is only a comment, the governor of Michigan appointed effectively an emergency manager for Flint, Michigan who decided Flint was broke and needed a cheaper water supply than buying it from Detroit which gets its water from Lake Huron. Instead, it would be cheaper to just pull water from the polluted Flint river which has a much different chemistry (saltier) than the lake water.

Once the switch was make, the pipeline that used to bring them water from Detroit was sold off to a private company, effectively selling the escape hatch.

That's when the problems started. The river water's chemistry is leaching the lead from Flint's water distribution pipelines and not they have no way to switch back. The governors administration knew of the memo's to the EPA employee that had ignored the warnings of high lead content and never took action as the levels went from 6ppb to 11 and continued to soar for more than 20 months now!

No lead is safe for drinking and this policy mandated by the governor and his team has poisoned an entire town of 100,000 people without their knowledge. There is no reversal of the damage to humans that has been done.

And I'll stop here because my comment is now too long, but there is so much to this story about a corrupt group of people forcing this on the people they should protect, all for saving some money. My heart sinks for the people of Flint.

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What's Clark's Remarks?

The thoughts and musings of Lawrence (Larry) Clark, principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC.


Lawrence (Larry) Clark, QCxP, GGP, LEED AP+

A member of HPAC Engineering’s Editorial Advisory Board, Lawrence (Larry) Clark, QCxP, GGP, LEED AP+, is principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a South Florida-based engineering...
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