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FLUSHING, Mich. — When a water crisis hit Flint in 2014, Terri Nelson and her husband, Dwayne Nelson, thought that they were safe.
They had been living in Flushing, a community 10 miles outside Flint, for the past 22 years — far enough, they thought, that they would never be affected by the city’s switch in water source, from the Great Lakes to the Flint River, in 2014.
Then, in the summer of 2015, Dwayne Nelson, 63, died suddenly. Though he had been receiving treatment for terminal lung cancer, his death certificate lists Legionella pneumonia as a factor in his death. The respiratory illness, commonly known as Legionnaires’ disease, is caused when waterborne bacteria are inhaled into the lungs.
Dwayne Nelson's death has Terri Nelson questioning whether his contact with Flint’s contaminated water system cut his life short.
“He never went anywhere in Flint,” Terri Nelson said. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on her: He had been receiving treatment at a medical facility there.
His death is now linked to an unprecedented outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Genesee County.
Reports from the state Health Department reveal at least 87 people were sickened in that same county during much of the same time that Flint’s water source was beginning to cause other health problems.
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 45 people in Genesee County became ill from June of 2014 to March of 2015, and five people died. From May 2015 to November 2015, 42 people became sick, and four people died.
The county’s health department can’t confirm those illnesses were all tied to the water. But they can’t rule out the possibility either.
“We didn’t have the Flint water [running in our home],” Terri Nelson said. “And I just didn’t expect it to ever be that bad."
She said she didn’t know about any other deaths caused by Legionnaires’ or outside Flint until this year.
“There needs to be someone accountable,” she said.
'At what point does the public need to know?'
Mark Valacak, the director of the Genesee County Health Department, said the county knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak in late summer 2014, but since health officials could not link the outbreak to a specific source, they did not want to send out alerts to the public.
“What is the point of presenting information to the public ... where you don’t have a connection of something that they can do?” he asked. “We’ve got hundreds of communicable diseases that are reported. At what point does the public need to know?”
Though this type of Legionnaires’ outbreak is extremely rare in Genesee County — it’s the first he has seen in his 30 years at the Health Department — he said the county wanted to avoid speculation.
Valacak said his department asked local hospitals to increase testing for Legionnaires’ and requested assistance from the Centers for Disease Control.
“We wanted, in the first year when we saw an increase in numbers, to bring in the CDC, but the state did not feel that it was necessary at that time,” he said.
The CDC spent three days in early February in Genesee County helping research the outbreak. A CDC representative said the agency will continue its public health support to the state and county.
Heather Beach, a mother of five boys in Flint, said she would have liked an immediate warning from the health officials even if the cause of the outbreak is still uncertain.
Her son Konnor Reynolds, 11, became very ill last summer. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. But she wondered whether he had Legionnaires’ disease.
“When the pediatrician tells you that your son is too sick to walk and that he has to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital, it’s scary, you know, watching him lay there, almost die,” Beach said, wiping tears from her eyes.
She said she blames the illness on the region’s water problems. “There’s just too much in the same time frame to call it a coincidence,” she said.
“It’s what we would expect based on experiments we did in 2014 and a paper we wrote. You would have predicted that this would have happened,” he said.
Edwards said Legionella bacteria thrive in dirty, warm pipes that lack chlorine.
“When the chlorine is gone and you have iron coming into the pipes, it is essentially Legionella food,” he said. “It’s a nutrient. It will grow like crazy, and then, when you’re in a shower and little droplets are in the air — or you drink water and somehow a little bit of that water goes into your lungs — this bacteria can go into your lungs and cause this infection.”
Edwards said the consequences for someone with a compromised immune system are much worse than for someone who is generally healthy.
The Virginia Tech researchers found a lot of Legionella in big buildings in Flint when they took samples in 2014. “It makes a very compelling case that this was related to the water,” he said.
Terri Nelson recently learned that McLaren Flint, the hospital where her husband received treatments, discovered low-level Legionella bacteria in the hospital’s water supply in August 2014.
“As soon as this was identified, McLaren Flint immediately put measures into place that were successful in controlling the situation,” a hospital representative wrote in a statement this year.
“It is important to note that no tests have ever determined that McLaren Flint is the source of exposure for any patients testing positive for the Legionella antigen,” the statement continued.
The statement wasn’t enough for some patients. Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger has filed a $100 million lawsuit against the hospital and the state of Michigan on behalf of some families who were sickened or experienced a death as a result of the Legionnaires’ outbreak.