Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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Legionnaire’s outbreak officially linked to Flint water crisis, nationally-touted research affirms

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By Jan Worth-Nelson

A fatal chain of events simultaneous with the Flint water crisis — an outbreak of Legionella’s disease which killed 12 and sickened scores of others during a 2014-15 outbreak—has now been scientifically linked to actions taken during the crisis.

The outbreak can be associated with the change in the City of Flint’s drinking water supply to the Flint River beginning in 2014, according to two scientific papers published this month in top-tier peer reviewed academic journals.

Put simply, the trigger in the scientific whodunit was an interaction between lead and chlorine, ostensibly added to improve the water quality but which set the condition for Legionella bacteria to thrive.

Chlorine was added when the city, then run by a state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley, switched to the Flint River from Lake Huron as its water source in April, 2014.

The scientists responsible for the research are a multi-disciplinary consortium called the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) who have been intensely collecting and analyzing data in Flint since the Legionella outbreak drew the community’s attention, suspicions and alarm in 2016.

Four members of the consortium presented their findings Thursday to the FACT Community Partners, a group of community representatives who meet monthly under the dome in City Hall to share information, resources and concerns around the water crisis and the city’s attempted recovery.

UM professor and FACHEP researcher Michele Swanson presenting data about the Legionnaire’s outbreak to the FACT Community Partners (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

The lead presenter was Michele Swanson, professor of microbiology and immunology from the University of Michigan.

She was joined by Shawn McElmurry, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering from Wayne State University; Paul Kilgore, an M.D. and associate professor with a specialization in infectious diseases and epidemiology, also at Wayne State; and Ben Pauli, assistant professor of social sciences at Kettering University.

“Changes in the drinking water source and treatment-altered water quality,” the scientists wrote, “as measured by a reduced chlorine residual, increased residents’ risk of Legionnaire’s disease, likely by enhancing legionellae growth in the water distribution system.”

Chlorine is added to keep bacterial concentrations down, Swanson explained, but there was a catch: heavy metals like lead, as Flint residents know was leaching into the pipes, have the effect of binding up chlorine, reducing its concentration. Legionella, a bacteria normally present in manageable proportions in nature, was given a boost by the change.

The story of the FACHEP’s response to the outbreak is a real life application of the scientific method propelled by a perplexing and deadly spike in the occurrence of the disease during a 17-month period after the change in the water source. It centered in detailed studies tracking chlorine levels around the city and the existence of two “serogroups” of the Legionnaire’s bacteria.

In previous years, the typical number of Legionella cases in Genesee County were between six and 13. In 2014-2015, the total jumped to an estimated 91 – with some diagnoses increasing the total as the situation became clearer.

Key elements of the findings—the evidence leading to the research conclusions–included the following:

  • The odds of a Flint neighborhood reporting a case of Legionnaires increased seven-fold after the switch to the Flint River.
  • After boil water advisories, the odds of a case decreased by 40 percent.
  • The risk of the disease returned to pre-Flint water crisis levels after the switch back to Lake Huron water.
  • 80 percent of the Legionnaires’ cases in Flint could be attributed to the change in water source and treatment.
  • When all cases associated with McLaren Hospital—where a number of patients were diagnosed and treated, and which was for a time speculated as a source of the outbreak—were omitted from the analysis, the switch to the Flint River still increased by six-fold the odds of Flint residents contracting the disease.

For months state officials resisted the suggestion that there was any link between the Legionnaire’s occurrences and the water crisis and declined to investigate it directly.

Asked by East Village Magazine if there had been a moral failure in the Legionnaires’ aspect of the water crisis, Swanson, McElmurry and Kilgore emphasized their job is to provide scientific data, hoping that “the free press” would get out information allowing the public to decide.

However, Pauli, a social scientist, stated, “We all know that there were some folks who were well aware that there was something weird going on with Legionella all the way back to the summer of 2014.

“Let’s suppose hypothetically there had been a careful investigation of what was happening at that time — we may very well have learned a lot that would be useful to us now in terms of understanding why people got sick and why people died.”

“Unfortunately because we only just now starting to take this issue seriously, there is a real paucity of useful data when you’re trying to do that careful detailed retrospective analysis. You can do the big bird’s eye statistical view, You can see patterns that you wish had been detected earlier on and should have been detected early on.

“As far as the deep digging goes, we’re able to do it now that people are taking it seriously. But we missed our opportunity to do that back in 2014 and 2015.

“I absolutely think that you could make a moral critique of the conditions that led to the neglect of that issue during those two years,” Pauli said.

Two top state officials, Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells have been indicted on manslaughter charges in the Legionnaire’s outbreak by State Attorney General Bill Schuette. Both have vehemently denied the charges and the cases are working their way through the courts.

Darnell Earley, the emergency manager when the city made the switch, also has been indicted. The three are among 15 state and local officials indicted so far in connection with the crisis.

As to culpability, Swanson offered an observation about systemic conditions.

“A fair question is, who’s responsible for monitoring the chlorine levels and does that trigger an action that should follow from data,” she said. “Do we have sufficient funding and expertise in our water utilities and our public agencies?”

Swanson emphasized, following a presentation by Rebecca Fedewa from the Flint River Watershed Coalition celebrating the river, that the river water was not the culprit – and that residents should not be afraid of enjoying it.

The papers published were “Assessment of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint Michigan,” in the February 2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and “Prevalence of Infection-Competent Serogroup 6 Legionella pneumophila with Premise Plumbing in Southeast Michigan” published in the February issue of mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.


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We know nothing; Mueller knows all

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Robert Mueller's meaty indictment, accusing 13 Russians (including an oligarch known as "Putin's cook") of "information warfare against the United States of America," shows the special counsel has been doing deep, serious investigative work — totally under the radar, and with zero leaks.

  • Amazing that there was no hint of this in the media.
  • The gist: "The alleged scheme was run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to try to influence the White House race."

Thought bubble:

  • We’ve only been reading about [Mueller's] interviews with Trump associates and White House officials — because these are the folks that Washington reporters talk to.
  • But Mueller has been picking apart complicated, secretive and well-funded Russian networks that could only have originated from the Kremlin.
  • Mueller’s indictments are not the work product of some frivolous fishing expedition to indict Trump, as some of Trump’s conservative allies have claimed.
  • This shows that Trump was wrong when he said during a debate that the DNC hacker "could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” It’s not fake news.
  • This shows Mueller has been doing consequential work, not just sniffing around the White House looking for an excuse to indict Trump. 
  • President Trump is either woefully ignorant, or deliberately lying, about the scope of Kremlin influence. This was a major Kremlin operation.

Why it matters:

  • It will now be even harder for Trump to fire Mueller. Capitol Hill already would have gone crazy if Trump tried that. But after Mueller has done such substantive work — even earning the lavish praise of Trump lawyer John Dowd — it’s impossible to imagine Trump getting away with firing him. 
  • The fact that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave a press conference is significant. It was a major vote of confidence in the Mueller probe: This is Rosenstein saying he’s proud of this work, and fully supports it.
  • It's also a notable show of independence by Rosenstein — a Heisman to the White House.

How it's playing ... Lead story of WashPost homepage: "Justice Dept. deals fatal blow to Trump’s Russia ‘hoax.'"

  • N.Y. Times Quote of the Day ... Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “The nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists.”

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Social manipulation — at scale

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Tech was a big loser in Mueller's stunning narrative, which showed how easily the big platforms were gamed. Instagram, owned by Facebook, was a key tool:

  • The indictment "underscores how thoroughly social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter were played by Russian propagandists, AP Tech Writers Matt O'Brien and Mae Anderson write:
  • Why it matters: "[I]t's not clear if the companies have taken sufficient action to prevent something similar from happening again."

  • "The indictment ... underscores that the problem wasn't just 'bots' — i.e., automated social-media accounts — but human conspirators who fine-tuned propaganda and built online relationships with American activists."
  • "[P]rosecutors allege that Russian criminals used PayPal as a primary conduit to transfer money for general expenses and to buy Facebook ads aimed at influencing voters."
  • From the N.Y. Times: "In mid-October [2016], Woke Blacks, an Instagram account run by the Internet Research Agency, carried the message 'hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.'"
  • Statement from Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice president of global public policy: "We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks ... We're making significant investments, including increasing the number of people working on security from 10,000 to 20,000 this year."

An illuminating take on the indictment came from Michael McFaul of Stanford, who was ambassador to Russia under President Obama, talking to Nicolle Wallace from Munich on MSNBC:

  • "The Internet Research Agency is run by a close, personal friend of Vladimir Putin. They would have never undertaken ... this audacious operation without the blessing of the Kremlin. And nothing in Russia happens without Vladimir Putin being involved."
  • "[T]he indictment was careful. But, from my point of view, ... this was an operation orchestrated by Vladimir Putin."
  • The Justice Department clearly concluded that whatever sources and methods might have been exposed in the startlingly detailed indictment, it was worth it.
  • "[T]he first thing we should say is three cheers to the FBI and to ... Robert Mueller and to everybody that was involved in this — and probably more than just the FBI. This was an incredible achievement, and that will get people's attention ... That's an instance of deterrence."
  • "We were attacked. Our sovereignty was violated. Spies came into our country."

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UM report: Gov. Snyder bears 'significant legal responsibility' for Flint water crisis

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"Flint residents' complaints were not hidden from the governor, and he had a responsibility to listen and respond," the 80-page report says.

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The United States of Guns

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Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 17 people in Parkland, Florida today. While this is an outrageous and horrifying event, it isn’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year and guns that can fire dozens of rounds a minute are perfectly legal.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible — there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success — but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains — “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily — sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. As Dan Hodges said on Twitter:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

I hate to leave it on that note, but Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.

Tags: USA   guns
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7 hours ago
How pants-shittingly scared of the world do you have to be to load up on guns and argue for more? The people arguing for more guns aren't patriots, they're cowards.

I intend to portray them as such from now on, and encourage everybody else to do the same.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth

The five-paragraph fetish

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Writing essays by a formula was meant to be a step on the way. Now it’s the stifling goal for student and scholar alike

By David Labaree

Read at Aeon

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