Four years after the start of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, it has become clear that the effects of the disaster are still unfolding. A new update on the Flint water crisis from PBS Frontline claims that the number of deaths associated with contaminated water is likely higher than official reports suggested. On top of that, the case against Nick Lyon, Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services director, for his role in exacerbating the crisis, has been delayed.
In April, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that there were 91 cases of Legionnaires' (a severe type of pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria) and 12 deaths associated with the disease during the 17-month period between 2014 and 2015 that Flint obtained its water supply from the Flint River. However, Frontline found that 119 deaths, recorded as caused by pneumonia, occurred during that time, and that some of them might have actually been caused by legionella.
In 2014 when Michigan state officials switched Flint's water source from Lake Huron to the cheaper Flint River, the polluted river water caused lead to leach from pipes. Soon residents began noticing brown water coming out of their faucets, and complaining that it smelled and tasted bad, though officials insisted that the water was fine. Multiple studies showed evidence of lead in the water and lead poisoning in residents, but the city and state government disputed findings and ultimately took months to switch Flint's water supply back to Lake Huron. And while blood levels of lead nearly doubled in infants and children following the switch, a second deadly effect — bacterial contamination — compounded the issue.
Compared to 27 pneumonia deaths in 2013, Frontline found that Flint experienced 47 deaths attributed to pneumonia in 2014, a 46% increase. Though there is not a lot of information about the Legionnaires' deaths during that time, Frontline's team of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists say that the timing of the uptick, and especially the fact that it happened in summer, when legionella grows the fastest, likely indicates that some of the reported pneumonia deaths were in fact due to Legionnaires' and directly linked to the water crisis.
More than a dozen criminal cases against city and state officials have already been filed in regards to the water crisis. According to The Detroit News, Lyon is being charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one misdemeanor count of "willfull neglect" for his role in the Flint water crisis. On Wednesday, in front of a courtroom reportedly so packed that media, state officials, and activists were standing in the hallway outside, Judge David Goggins delayed his decision about whether Lyon will stand trial for his actions. The new decision date has been set for August 20.
Lyon's case has already proceeded through 10 months of heated testimony after first being charged by Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette last June. Special prosecutor Todd Flood argued that Lyon should have warned the public about the legionella outbreak, and could have saved lives. Lyon's defense lawyers countered by passing the buck, saying that Lyon relies on the expertise of his department of some 14,000 employees, none of whom recommended that a legionella warning be issued.
According to Frontline, Flood has also raised the question of underreported legionella-related deaths in court, citing the surge in pneumonia deaths in 2014 that may have been misdiagnosed Legionnaires' cases.
After the judge issued his decision to delay on Wednesday, Lyon's attorney, John Bursch, called Flood's arguments "mudslinging," according to The Detroit News. Prosecutors "don’t have a leg to stand on," he said.