Researchers commissioned by PBS' Frontline to further examine the impact of the Flint water crisis have found the official death toll of 12 may be grossly understated.
According to the team of epidemiologists with Emory University, there could be as many as 70 additional water crisis-related deaths. That's how many out-of-the-ordinary pneumonia deaths were recorded in Genesee County from 2014-15, after Flint's water source was switched and the area was grappling with a Legionnaires’ outbreak.
Legionnaires’ is a severe form of pneumonia — meaning "some of those people could have been Legionnaires’ disease cases that were left undiagnosed, untreated and, ultimately, uncounted," Frontline writes.
The analysis is explained in a piece accompanying Frontline's Tuesday episode on the subject. Researchers compared the number of pneumonia cases in Genesee to the average from dozens of other Michigan and midwestern counties with similar populations and climates. They found that after years of following the same pattern as the other counties, Genesee saw an unusual uptick in pneumonia deaths in the summer of 2014, just after its water source was switched to the corrosive Flint River.
The Emory team also mapped the pneumonia death rates, and found they tended to cluster in the same areas as the diagnosed Legionnaires’ cases — in west Flint and northwest of the city — further evidence to them that at least some of the pneumonia cases were likely Legionnaires’.
The team presented their work to two independent reviewers — who offered suggestions that have been incorporated into the analysis — including Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “It’s definitely very suggestive that there were much more cases of Legionnaires’ disease than what was officially reported,” he told Frontline.
Here's the trailer for the episode: