Shawn McElmurry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, first became aware of the Flint water crisis in the summer of 2015. He was listening to the radio and heard that Michigan state officials discredited the research of pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Professor Marc Edwards.
The two exposed the Flint water crisis to the public in 2015. Hanna-Attisha noticed that blood lead levels in children doubled after the water was switched. Edwards found high lead levels in the homes of Flint residents.
“My wife got sick of listening to me complain about it and she said, ‘Do something,’” said McElmurry.
McElmurry, motivated to act, contacted Hanna-Attisha to get involved. McElmurry said he was in possession of data he felt might be useful and offered his assistance to look into the outbreak. He had previously done research in the Flint area in 2010, prior to the water crisis.
In 2016, McElmurry and a team of researchers were tasked with leading the investigation regarding the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint, which occurred between 2014-2015. The outbreak resulted in twelve deaths and over 90 people contracting the disease.
Lead was discovered in Flint’s water after the city began using the Flint River as its water source in 2014. It had previously relied on water from the Detroit River, but made the decision to switch in an effort to save money. An increase in the prevalence of Legionnaires’ disease among Flint residents was reported by city officials in 2016.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s office contacted McElmurry in 2016 to ask if the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak was caused by a change in the water quality. This question would lead McElmurry and his team to conduct research for over two years to try to find an answer.
McElmurry and his team of researchers – made up Flint Residents, WSU students and students from other universities – are still currently researching the outbreak in Flint. They are receiving funding from the state of Michigan, but are working as an independent organization and not under contract with the state.
The research team is working to discover how water quality impacts the prevalence of Legionella and the likelihood of finding the bacteria in Flint home water systems, in addition to what factors lead to the spread and contraction of Legionnaires’ disease.
McElmurry said most of the questions him and his team were tasked to investigate will be answered when they conclude their research.
During the outbreak – when Flint was using contaminated water – the rate of Legionnaires’ disease increased by 80 percent. Once Flint switched back to Detroit’s water system, cases of Legionnaires’ disease within the city returned to normal levels, according to McElmurry’s research. In Flint, there are currently an average of less than 12 cases of Legionnaires’ disease a year.
The early stages of their research was planned to commence in the spring of 2016; however, due to complications with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, they did not begin work until fall of 2016, said McElmurry.
“As time goes on, the water system flushes out and the conditions change,” said McElmurry. “The farther you get away from the time period that you’re of interest, the less information you are going to have about what happened in the past.”
He added that the delay in being able to start conducting research created several challenges for his team.
“Even if we find things that happened in 2016-2017, relating that back to 2014-2015 may not be possible depending on what the data is,” McElmurry said.
As part of the investigation, researchers would collect water samples from randomly selected homes. Samples were taken from showers, water heaters and kitchen faucets.
Additionally, water filters were collected and frozen.
“We now have the filters in the lab where we can look at the type of bacteria that were trapped in them,” said McElmurry.
Researchers also surveyed Flint residents. The questionnaire consisted of over 100 inquires that covered 22 topics with a focus on the health and levels of stress of individuals in the home.
Joanne Sobeck, director for the Center of Social Work Research, said finances, careers, health and home conditions were the most prevalent concerns among those surveyed. She added many Flint residents experienced anxiety and depression.
“This is what is expected given how people react to crisis and disaster,” said Sobeck. “This information is helpful to the agencies in Flint because they know to tailor some services for Flint residents.”
She added that listening to the concerns and fears of Flint residents is almost as important as the distributing the statistics and information on legionnaires.
“Just listening to them, you could kind of see how people were hungry to tell their stories,” said Sobeck.
Participants in the study were also asked if they sought help for their problems.
43 percent of people interviewed asked for help at least one time, said Sobeck. One-third sought assistance from a healthcare provider, counselor or a mental health agency. The second most used source for assistance was friends and family.
The study also looked into the trust Flint residents had in the government.
“We found that trust went down among Flint residents for both government and non-government institutions,” said Sobeck.
This distrust after the water crisis was shown towards institutions like the city of Flint, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and the County Health Department.
“I think that the amount of distrust for the government institutions continues to be a hurdle, but it certainly hasn’t stopped Flint residents from working toward more sustainable practices,” said Sobeck. “The people of Flint are working hard to redefine their success and well-being.”
Over the summers of 2016 and 2017, more than 700 household interviews were conducted for the study, said Sobeck.
McElmurry said his team is now in the process analyzing data.
They are trying to compare their data to data provided by Flint Water Utilities.
“We’re trying to look for relationships and define things that occurred and understand processes that occur,” said McElmurry.
The team expects to have a large portion of their research done by the end of the year.
“When it comes to research, you start off by asking a few key questions. These key questions are answered as more questions arise,” said Sobeck.
“Sometimes you have data that can help you to answer those questions, and sometimes you need to collect additional data,” said McElmurry.
McElmurry said there is no doubt the water quality in Flint has improved from the conditions in 20142015. However, he added that the water system behaves in a way that results in some areas in the city continuing to have water quality challenges today.
“We are looking at the Flint [water] system in ways that we traditionally haven’t looked at most water systems,” said McElmurry. “The intensive look into the Flint water system has led to questions about how other water systems form and behave, specifically in areas with old infrastructure.”
McElmurry said he feels it is him and his team’s duty to honor what the people of Flint have been through by sharing the research findings to help inform future decisions.
“The one real challenge for us has been returning information back to the residents in a state that is desirable and, quite frankly, they deserve,” said McElmurry. “It’s many years after this has started and they still don’t have answers.”