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How Flint's Legionnaires' disease outbreak led to 5 charges of involuntary manslaughter

Legionella pneumophila
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Illustration of Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes the majority of Legionnaires' disease cases and outbreaks.

Five local and state officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter Wednesday morning in the state investigation into the Flint water crisis. They are accused of failing to act during the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Genesee County.

Click here to read more about the history of Legionnaires' disease.

In 2014 and 2015, Genesee County saw 90 cases of Legionnaires' disease, leading to 12 deaths. 

Credit Kaye LaFond/Michigan Radio
The number of Legionnaires' cases skyrocketed in 2014-2015, mostly in Genesee County.

Legionnaires' disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a waterborne bacteria called Legionella pneumophila. The bacteria exists naturally in freshwater systems, but becomes an issue when it is able to grow and multiply. Warm water with depleted levels of disinfectant best foster that growth.

People get sick by inhaling mist or vapor from contaminated water systems.

Some scientists blamed the outbreak on the 2014 switch to the Flint municipal water system. Improper corrosion control contributed to high lead levels leaching into the water, as well as a lack of chlorine disinfectant and high levels of iron; both can increase the likelihood of Legionella bacteria growth.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control reported a potential link between the spike in Legionnaires' disease and the city switching its water source in 2014. The CDC found a genetic link between two Legionnaires' cases and Legionella bacteria found at Flint’s McLaren Hospital.  

There were many concerns over the state's handling of the outbreak. The main concern, and the issue that led to the charges now facing officials, was that the public was not officially notified about the outbreak until January 2016. Many also wondered why the MDHHS failed to follow up with the Centers for Disease Control. 

Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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