New Emails Expose Flint Officials Knew How Sick People Could Get From the Water Ages Ago

February 4th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Top Michigan health officials warned about an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease potentially linked to polluted water in Flint in March of 2015 — about 10 months before the state acknowledged a crisis over high levels of lead in the public water supply, according to internal emails obtained by Progress Michigan.


On March 13 of last year, Harvey Hollins, a principal adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), received an email from a state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) employee attributing an uptick in the number of Legionnaires' cases to the city's new source of drinking water, the Flint River, according to the newly-released documents.

Snyder did not disclose the rise in Legionnaires' cases until January 13 of 2016, and said he learned of the increase days before the disclosure. The disease is a pneumonia traced to bacteria in the lungs. 

In a March 2015 email to Hollins marked "high" importance, however, Brad Wurfel, then-communications director at the Michigan DEQ noted that more than 40 cases of Legionnaires' had been reported since April 2014, when Flint switched water sources. "That's a significant uptick — more than all the cases in the last five years or more combined," Wurfel wrote.

"April/May is usually the start of the Legionnaires' season — it proliferates in warmer months — but April also is the point at which the city switched to the Flint River as a source," Worfel continued.

Wurfel goes on to note that county health departments had not performed epidemiological tracebacks on the confirmed cases of the water-borne disease, despite specific requests.

"At a January meeting with area hospitals, MDCH, DEQ and others, Nick Lyon reportedly directed the county health folks, in terms not uncertain, to get this done as a priority," he wrote. "As I'm sitting here today, it still is not done to my knowledge."


Three days before, on March 10, Genesee County environmental health supervisor Jim Henry noted the connection between the water switch and the increase in Legionnaires' cases:


"The situation has been explicitly explained to MDEQ and many of the city's officials," Henry wrote.

"I want to make sure, in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue. The Trihalomethane issues 'pale in comparison' to the potential public health risks of Legionella," he continued, referencing a chemical byproduct from disinfecting water.

Flint River bridge

In April of 2014, state-appointed city managers switched Flint's water source from Detroit to the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure. The corrosive river water eroded the city's aging water system, causing lead and other contaminants to leech into the city's drinking water. Nearly everyone is thought to have ingested the polluted water — including young children, in which early exposure to lead can cause irreversible cognitive damage.

So far, there have been 87 reported cases of Legionnaires disease, with at least nine deaths, the Associated Press reports

"These emails show us that a principal advisor to Governor Snyder knew about the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease a full 10 months before officials told the people of Michigan," Hugh Madden, a spokesperson for Progress Michigan told ATTN: in a phone call.


That "raises questions about the timeline the governor has given people, and also raises questions about when the governor found out," Madden continued. "If it's true that no one from multiple departments informed him, it raises questions about who's running the state of Michigan, and why has the governor has created a culture where that info wouldn't get to him."

ATTN: reached out to Snyder's office for comment, and will update this story accordingly. 

Read the full email exchange below:

Wurfel to Hollins Email - Legionnaires by progressmichigan