Edwards: 95 percent confident legionella outbreak linked to water crisis

Legionnaires' disease
Legionnaires' disease(CNN)
Updated: Jun. 1, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WNEM) - What caused the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in Mid-Michigan?

That’s the question scientists and health officials have been trying to answer for years.

In a documentary that aired Wednesday night, a long-running series on PBS claims there is a definitive link between the crisis and Legionnaires. In the city of Flint that link hasn’t been quite as clear.

The Legionnaires outbreaks first began in 2014, ultimately causing 12 deaths and sickening dozens more.

Flint has had one of the most significant outbreaks of legionella ever associated with a drinking water system. It could lead to a change in laws to protect people in the future.

There’s no question whether the water crisis poisoned Flint’s water supply with lead, but is the switch to Flint River water to blame for the legionella outbreak?

“When you say the word definitively, you have to define what is the standard of proof you’re talking about. Is it 100 percent? Is it 99 percent? Is it 95 percent? At this point we’re very, very confident that the outbreak was related to the switch in the waters,” Dr. Marc Edwards said.

Edwards said he is still studying that issue in his lab at Virginia Tech, but so far he is 95 percent confident the legionella outbreak is tied to the water crisis.

He warns it is possible Flint may never get to a definitive scientific conclusion.

“We can’t go back in time to take samples from the patients and from the water system, which is the basis for proof that it is 100 percent,” Edwards said.

The state is still holding back. In a statement to TV5 on Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services said based upon the information obtained to date, MDHHS is not aware that there has been any definitive link established between the legionella outbreak in Genesee County and the change in the Flint’s water supply.

The department also noted they are working with Edwards and his lab.

Flint City Councilman Herbert Winfrey said he would be inclined to trust Edwards’ analysis.

“I would have a tendency to look at it and lean towards whatever results he’s sharing,” Winfrey said.

The legionella question poses a host of legal questions for the families of 12 people who were killed, as well as the several others involved in civil and criminal legal battles.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has spoken previously with sympathy for families who have lost loved ones to Legionnaires’ disease and referenced those deaths as fuel for his office’s investigation into the Flint water crisis.

Winfrey said the city of Flint has not yet been made whole.

“And I don’t think that the governor or the state should be the one to decide who makes us whole. I think it should be played out in court,” Winfrey said.

Schuette’s office declined to comment on specifics of a link between legionella and the water crisis because their investigation into the crisis is still ongoing.