Michigan warning on Flint Legionnaires' outbreak came late

DETROIT (Reuters) - State officials knew about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and its suspected link to water system issues in impoverished Flint, Michigan, at least 10 months before a public announcement was made, documents released on Friday showed.

The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

The state’s disclosure of the documents, among thousands of pages of emails and other material released, comes as Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, faces pressure to resign over his administration’s handling of the Flint water crisis.

Michigan’s Genesee County, which includes Flint, had 87 cases of Legionnaires’ from June 2014 to November 2015. Of those cases, 10 were fatal.

Flint switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014 in a cost-cutting move when the city was under a state-appointed emergency manager. More corrosive water from the river leached lead from city pipes, causing a serious public health threat.

Friday’s documents echoed previous disclosures showing that high-ranking state officials knew about an increase in Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County and a possible link to Flint’s water 10 months before the governor said he received information about the outbreak.

It is not clear how the water supply switch may have caused proliferation of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’. But health and environmental officials said in the emails that efforts to combat other contaminants by flushing the water system pipes and using different treatment methods might have inadvertently encouraged the presence of Legionella.

Stephen Busch, a district manager in the drinking water division for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, wrote in an email on March 17, 2015, that the city should take action to optimize water quality to help limit the potential for occurrence of Legionella.

Emails also show Busch tussling with county health officials over the issue and saying it was premature to link the public water system with Legionella. Busch was suspended last month and his job status is currently on review, a state official said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was approached by Genesee County health officials in February 2015 about an increase in reported Legionnaires’ disease cases, but state officials subsequently told the agency they would handle the investigation into the matter themselves, a CDC spokeswoman said.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

In January 2016, state officials asked for the CDC’s help in the matter.

Legionnaires’ disease can lead to severe pneumonia, respiratory failure, kidney failure and septic shock. It cannot be transmitted person-to-person. It is most common in the summer and early fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include fever, cough, headaches and muscle aches

Liberal group Progress Michigan said Friday’s release of documents and emails was all for show, and called on Snyder to release his and those of his executive staff.

“If the governor is serious about wanting to be transparent, he will release every single document and communication regarding the Flint Water Crisis, including those of his executive staff,” Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement.

Flint, a predominantly black city of about 100,000 people, switched back to Detroit water in October after tests found high levels of lead in samples of children’s blood. Lead can damage the nervous system.

In tests, hundreds of Flint homes showed tap water lead levels higher than the acceptable 15 parts per billion level, according to data released by Michigan this week. Thousands of other tested homes did not exceed that level.

Snyder, who has apologized for the state’s poor handling of the water crisis, alerted the public to the Legionnaires’ outbreak on Jan. 13 and said he had only heard about it two days earlier.

On Friday, a U.S. House of Representatives oversight panel said Snyder would testify on the Flint water crisis next month. Darnell Earley, who was Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager when the city switched from Detroit’s water system, will also testify.

Snyder said in a Friday statement in which the state released emails and other documents from several state departments that “all levels of government failed the people of Flint. This crisis never should have happened.”

Flint’s fire and police chiefs resigned on Friday in what the city’s mayor, Karen Weaver, called a first step in restructuring operations as it struggles to cope with the water crisis.

Additional reporting by Dave McKinney, Fiona Ortiz, Karen Pierog, Karl Plume, P.J. Huffstutter and Justin Madden in Chicago, David Shepardson and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Matthew Lewis