Amid Water Crisis, Michigan’s Top Health Official Said Flint Residents “Have to Die of Something,” Scientists Say
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As summer approached, Shawn McElmurry, Dr. Paul Kilgore and Dr. Marcus Zervos were growing increasingly concerned.
The three men sat on a scientific panel that was formed to look into the source of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint, Michigan. The spread of the disease coincided with the state switching the city’s drinking water supply to the Flint River — and it had gone on for more than a year before the public was notified.
Now, it was May 2016, four months since Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced both the existence of the outbreak and the creation of the panel, and the state health department still hadn’t officially authorized the panel to begin working, its members say.
The group knew how Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia caused by the waterborne legionella bacteria, operates: once the weather heated up, more people could die. So in May, they met with state health director Nick Lyon to warn him that it was urgent to step up monitoring for Legionnaires’ cases.
“I remember, at one point, my colleague telling him that if he didn’t do that, people could die,” McElmurry, an engineering professor and the chair of the panel, told FRONTLINE.
“Unfortunately,” McElmurry said, “Nick Lyon’s response was that ‘They’ll have to die of something.’”
That’s just one of the troubling alleged incidents reported in new detail — or for the first time — in Flint’s Deadly Water. Based on two years of reporting, the FRONTLINE documentary premiering Sept. 10 reveals how a public health disaster that’s become known for the lead poisoning of thousands of children also spawned one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history.
By the time of the May meeting with Lyon, Flint’s water supply had been switched following public outrage about lead levels, and the Legionnaires’ outbreak, which had killed at least 12 people, had subsided. As the film details, the panel members — who have never before spoken publicly about their experience outside of court testimony — say the state repeatedly tried to impede their efforts to identify the outbreak’s source and prevent a recurrence.
In addition to his work on the panel, Zervos observed the outbreak’s impact up-close: He treated the youngest confirmed victim of the Flint Legionnaires’ outbreak, Jassmine McBride, in her final months. In the above excerpt from the film, Zervos told FRONTLINE that he was “flabbergasted” by how he says Lyon responded to the warning.
“It was a situation where you’re just, I mean, you’re just in shock as a result of him saying that — the director of the Health Department,” he said.
Nick Lyon declined to be interviewed. In a letter, his attorney said, “Director Lyon did not make that crass remark.” He said the team’s work was one of Lyon’s top priorities and blamed any delays on the scientists.
While he remained in office, Lyon would eventually be charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to alert the public and allegedly covering up the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Prosecutors also accused Lyon of interfering in McElmurry’s investigation. Through his attorney, Lyon has maintained that he did nothing wrong. Earlier this year, a new prosecution team dropped all charges against him.
For the story of how the outbreak happened, why it continued for more than a year before state officials alerted the public, the consequences of that delay for the people of Flint, and the status of the legal effort to hold people accountable, watch Flint’s Deadly Water.
With on-the-ground reporting from director Abby Ellis, reporters Kayla Ruble and Jacob Carah, and FRONTLINE Senior Editor Sarah Childress (all Michigan natives), the documentary sheds new light on an outbreak that has received little national attention.
“Most people outside of Flint look at the lead issue as the main issue,” Flint city council member Eric Mays tells FRONTLINE in the documentary. “But the killer has been Legionnaires’… I still don’t think that they want people outside of Flint to know.”