Eden Wells, facing obstruction of justice and involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the Flint water crisis, will lead a public health board.
The Flint water crisis has receded from the news cycle, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. On the contrary, some of Flint’s problems could soon be felt statewide. Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder (R) just tapped Dr. Eden Wells to lead a council whose purpose is to improve Michigan’s response to public health threats as they arise.
The Flint water crisis broke in 2014 as officials issued a boil water alert after discovering fecal coliform bacteria in the water supply. Flint had switched away from Detroit city water and tapped the Flint river as a cost-saving measure despite the river’s long history of severe contamination, including coliform bacteria. Since the remarkably corrosive Flint River water hadn’t been treated with anti-corrosives, lead leached out of the old pipes and into the blood of Flint residents, especially children. Levels of lead in some homes reached as high as 13,200 parts per billion. (The EPA classifies water with only 5,000 ppb as hazardous waste.)
Other health threats have also been linked to the water in Flint. In early 2015, TTHM, a carcinogenic disinfectant byproduct, was detected in the water. It was deemed safe because the cancer risk mattered only in the long term. In 2014-2015 an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease sickened 87 people and killed twelve.
In more recent months, a working paper by Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky from the University of Kansas compared fertility rates in Flint to that of other major Michigan cities, both before and after the critical switch to the Flint river. They found that the Flint womens’ fertility rate plummeted 12% and miscarriages rose, with the fetal death rate increasing 58%. This rate doesn’t include miscarriages that occur before the 20th week of gestation, so it’s likely to greatly underestimate the true count. Altogether, about 275 fewer babies were born to mothers in Flint than would have been expected had the crisis not occurred. Those that were born were, on average, smaller and somewhat less healthy than those born elsewhere in Michigan.
Suffice to say that the Flint water situation was, and continues to be, a public health disaster. That’s why Governor Snyder’s choice of Eden Wells to lead the new Public Health Advisory Council is so shocking.
The purpose of the council is to advise the state concerning emerging public health issues as well as keeping tabs on the effectiveness of Michigan’s response to those threats. Dr. Eden Wells, who is supposed to be in charge of this 20-member body, is currently facing criminal charges relating to the Flint water crisis.
Charges against Eden Wells include obstruction of justice (a felony), lying to a police officer (a misdemeanor), and involuntary manslaughter. She also allegedly threatened to withhold funding from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the group didn’t stop investigating the cause of the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. The manslaughter charge alleges that Wells failed to prevent the death of Robert Skidmore, who tested positive for Legionella and died on December 13th, 2015. Wells was aware of the Legionaires’ outbreak on January 28, 2015, but waited a year to warn the public, according to the charging documents.
Governor Snyder’s spokeswoman defended Wells, saying that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Even so, is Michigan so bereft of public health experts that Snyder was forced to choose Eden Wells, someone he budgeted the funds to prosecute, for the position? If not, then what could he possibly be thinking? And most importantly, can the people of Michigan expect more of the same old crap coming to their hometowns?
Related: Flint Water Suit Settled, Still Bad