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Organizers, health professionals to examine how water shutoffs can affect Detroiters’ health

Ali Elisabeth
Michigan Radio

This week, community organizers in Detroit are bringing in experts to talk about the health implications of city-imposed mass water shutoffs. They want to highlight a research project done at Henry Ford Health System that showed a statistically significant correlation between water shutoffs and water-associated illness.

But Henry Ford Health System spokeswoman Brenda Craig warns the study was not conclusive because the city only provided block-level data, not specific addresses that have been turned off.

"Regrettably, this document continues to be released and used for purposes for which it was not intended and for conclusions that are not accurate," Craig wrote.

She declined requests to interview the researchers involved in the study, writing it would be “premature and irresponsible” to discuss.

According to the 2-page abstract released in April by the group People’s Water Board Coalition, researchers atHenry Ford’s Global Health Initiative “undertook research with community partners to understand the relationship between city-imposed water shutoffs and health outcomes among patients at its hospital in Detroit.”

The researchers used patient data to screen for certain gastrointestinal and skin and soft tissue infections. They compared it to city data showing which city blocks had experienced a water shut off between January 2015 and February 2016.

They found two “statistically significant” correlations:

  • “Those who were diagnosed with a water-associated illness were 1.42 times more likely to have lived on a block that had experienced a water shutoff.”
  • “Those patients who came from blocks that experienced a shut off were 1.55 times more likely to have been diagnosed with a water-associated illness.”

Brenda Craig says Henry Ford’s Global Health Initiative undertook the “extremely limited study” after a community workshop held years ago on Detroit’s redevelopment goals.  

“GHI found ONLY a preliminary association between water shutoffs and illness in people who happened to live on a block that experienced a shutoff – in other words, we can’t definitively conclude anything from this study. Additional studies with multiple factors and controls would be necessary. At this point, we remain open to talking with city and other officials about appropriate next steps,” Craig wrote.

It's not just that researchers don’t have the shutoff addresses, but they didn’t attempt to determine the cause of the illness or specifically ask the patient if they had experienced a shutoff.

“It doesn’t go with Detroit’s comeback narrative,” Monica Lewis-Patrick says of the study. She’s president and CEO of We The People of Detroit, which organizes against water shutoffs. She worries there’s political pressure on the hospital to keep quiet about the conclusions, something Craig denies.

Interactive Map: Detroit water shutoffs by neighborhood

More than 20,000 people have had their water shut off each year since 2014.

Wayne State University’s Peter Hammer calls it an “outrageous humanitarian crisis.”

“It’s now become an endemic problem in the city and everyone turns their back on it. We’ve had to struggle to find people locally who are willing to talk about the health implications,” Hammer said.

He and Lewis-Patrick and others are organizing an event this week to bring health experts from outside of Southeast Michigan to talk about the study's finding and other potential health implications of water shutoffs on a massive scale.

We the People of Detroit is joining Detroit Equity Action Lab to put on the community meeting Wednesday night at 6p.m. at Wayne State.

“I’m not mad at (Henry Ford),” Lewis-Patrick said, “But we’re not just whining. We’re trying to find solutions.”

Despite multiple attempts, no city officials were able to talk about the study before deadline.

Detroit officials have seen the study and met with the Henry Ford researchers, according to a hospital source speaking on background. They insisted there is no political pressure on researchers.

"I'm not mad at (Henry Ford)," Lewis-Patrick said, "But we're not just whining. We're trying to find solutions,"

The source said the city told researchers they’d have to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act to get the addresses of those who’ve experienced a shutoff. But multiple media sources attempting to get similar data, including Michigan Radio, have been denied. Detroit Water and Sewer Department does not release specific addresses affected, citing privacy exemptions.

Wayne State University’s Peter Hammer says the lack of cooperation is “ridiculous.”

“The data’s there. It’s not like we don’t know it or we can’t find it. We know where it’s at. So if somebody had the will, whether from the public health department of the city, Henry Ford or other researchers, and there was political cooperation, it would be very easy to do a much more rigorous study,” he said.

The source from Henry Ford says the hospital’s research arm is considering a more rigorous study, but says that would likely take years to complete. They say at least one outside research institution has expressed interest in taking on a more comprehensive study.

The source said the hospital is committed to the health and safety of residents and patients, but also the hospital’s relationship with the city. “These are both important,” the source said.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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