September 12, 2016

Led by Wayne State researchers, water testing in Flint is underway

The Flint Area Community Health Environment Partnership (FACHEP) — led by professors from Wayne State University and Kettering University — has begun independent testing of residential water sources in Flint, Michigan. FACHEP is working to understand how prevalent Legionnaires’ disease is within drinking water systems and to identify conditions that reduce the risk of exposure to this bacterium. 

Members of the FACHEP team are systematically collecting and analyzing water samples from homes in Flint. During this process, residents are invited to participate in a survey to identify health and social issues that may affect their risk of Legionnaires’ disease.  

Since January 2016, the FACHEP team has actively worked with Flint residents and community-based organizations to lay the foundation for close collaboration and engagement.  This work will continue in a sustained fashion in order to understand community needs and concerns with respect to Legionnaires’ disease and related social determinants of health.

“Many of the residents in Flint are anxious to have more information about the water and possible association with Legionella, and we are anxious to try and provide some answers,” said Laura Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor of engineering at Kettering.

Residents invited to participate in the study will be selected randomly within different geographic locations. Letters asking residents to participate have been delivered. FACHEP representatives are currently visiting  homes, taking water samples and conducting surveys of residents. Participation in this water testing and survey is completely voluntary. 

During water testing, FACHEP will measure chemical and biological conditions in an attempt to determine which conditions are associated with the presence of Legionella. Examples of the chemical measurements that will be made include pH, chlorine and the amount of nutrients present. Results of the water testing will be made available to residents. General study findings will be reported to the public at the same time they are reported to government officials.

“We are excited to be at this point in our effort to help the people of Flint address issues related to the water system” said Shawn McElmurry, Ph.D., a Wayne State environmental engineer leading the project.  “Working with the residents of Flint and officials from the mayor’s office, the Genesee County Health Department and numerous community organizations in Flint has been critical to getting this project underway.”

Legionella bacteria are naturally found in freshwater, such as lakes and streams, but many scientific questions remain about their presence in residential water systems. There are many strains of Legionella bacteria, some of which can cause Legionnaires’ disease — a potentially serious form of pneumonia, which is an infection of the lungs.  Like other types of pneumonia, it can lead to complications if not treated quickly.  In general, Legionella does not spread from one person to another. People also don’t get Legionnaires’ disease from drinking water, but they may be exposed when water droplets enter their lungs.

Most healthy people do not get sick after being exposed to Legionella. Being 50 years or older or having certain risk factors increases the chances of getting sick. Risk factors include being a current or former smoker; having chronic lung disease, such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; having a weakened immune system from diseases like cancer, diabetes, or kidney failure; or taking medicine that weakens your immune system. Legionnaires’ disease is not common in children.

Although people can get Legionnaires’ disease at any time of year, it’s more common in summer and fall, when temperatures are warmer. To date, three cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been identified in Genesee County. Large water systems — like those found in hospitals, hotels and other large buildings — can sometimes grow Legionella bacteria if they are not properly maintained. The most common sources of exposure from these types of buildings are air conditioning systems with cooling towers, hot tubs and spas, or decorative fountains. 

This is the first systematic study of the potential relationship of Legionnaires’ disease and the Flint water system. The results may be helpful as other communities grapple with aging water systems and emerging diseases such as Legionnaires.

FACHEP is led by Wayne State researchers specializing in environmental engineering, public health, and social and community support systems. The team also includes participants from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Colorado State University, Henry Ford Health System, The MADE Institute and Genesee Health Systems. Funding for phase two of FACHEP’s independent study is provided through a contract between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Wayne State University.

If questions about the FACHEP study please call 844-35-FLINT. 

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