The state of Michigan and Governor Rick Snyder have ended the free bottled water distribution program to Flint residents, according to news reports. The 2-year-old program began in January 2016 as part of a $450 million state and federal aid package that was put in place after lead-tainted water plagued the city during the Flint water crisis, which started in 2014, sickening thousands of children, seniors, and pets.

It’s also believed that the tainted water is responsible for a 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in which 12 people died and nearly 90 sickened. In addition, the area experienced a decrease in fertility and increase in infant deaths and miscarriages.

Gov. Rick Snyder
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

“I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team,” Gov. Snyder said in a news release. “.We have worked diligently to restore the water quality, and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

State testing has shown Flint’s water supply has passed federal standards for nearly two years. Recent results put the lead levels at 4 parts per billion (ppb), which is below the federal action level of 15 ppb, according to state officials.

The Points of Delivery (POD) – where the bottled water distribution took place – were officially closed April 10, after the last of the free water was distributed, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The state said the program cost an average of $22,000 a day this year.

“One of the things we said right from the beginning [was] that those PODs stay open until we got through the lead service line replacements,” Flint Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver said in a news conference. “We’re not through that yet … that was very insensitive to the people when you look at everything we’ve been through.”

Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver
Flint Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver

Weaver said she will lobby Gov. Snyder for an extension of the water distribution program until the state has replaced all residential lead and galvanized steel water service lines, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2019. A spokesperson said the governor would meet with Weaver “when his schedule allows.”

Water crisis started in 2014

The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 after the city switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to cut costs. The switch introduced lead, iron and organic matter into Flint’s water supply, leading to the Legionnaires’ outbreak and other medical issues.

Soon after the switch, residents complained that the water started to look, smell and taste funny. Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and scientists at Virginia Tech University showed alarming levels of lead in the residents’ water.

A class-action lawsuit charged that the state wasn’t treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, a violation of federal law. The improperly treated water was eroding the iron water mains, turning the water brown. Additionally, about half of the service lines to Flint homes are made of lead, and because treatment of the water wasn’t adequate, lead also began leaching into the water supply.

More than a dozen lawsuits, including several class-action suits, were filed against the state of Michigan and the city of Flint, as well as various state and city officials, and employees involved in the decision to switch the water source.

Free water filters and replacement cartridges will continue to be made available for residents who have water line work in progress – which could cause short-term spikes of lead into the water – or who feel more comfortable using a filter until their confidence in the water quality is restored. Residents can find them at City Hall or by calling the Community Outreach Resident Education Program (CORE) at 810-238-6700. The CORE program was established to ensure Flint residents are correctly installing, using and maintaining the water filters.

Non-profit groups also have been distributing free bottled water at Flint churches, and that will likely continue, although with the discontinuation of the city program, it could affect how they administer the distribution. “Normally, we give out whatever a family wants,” Bill Quarles, a deacon at the First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, told NBC News. “But now we may have to limit that until more supplies come in.”

What is Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionnaires’ disease – also called Legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to the Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year. However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms, and 10 percent of those illnesses will end in death.

Contracting Legionella
Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets (mist or vapor). The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Outbreaks have been linked to a range of sources:

  • large plumbing systems and large water systems, such as those used in hotels, hospitals, and nursing homes
  • air conditioning systems’ cooling towers
  • hot water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • physical therapy equipment
  • mist machines and sink sprayers
  • decorative fountains.