Researchers have found elevated numbers of tumors in fish in the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, suggesting that efforts to remove carcinogenic contaminants from the three waterways have been unsuccessful.
The study, which was led by the U.S. Geological Survey, found elevated skin and liver tumors in white suckers. It also found that some male white suckers sampled for the study had testicular tumors.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the finding surprised researchers, because those tumors had not often been found in other cleanup projects of polluted rivers.
The study, published in the Journal of Fish Diseases, said the exact cause of the tumors isn’t known. But previous research has suggested that exposure to contaminants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can cause liver tumors in fish.
PAH pollution in the water can come from contaminant runoff from a number of sources, including power plants, industrial processes and vehicles. In humans, exposure to PAHs has been linked to cardiovascular disease and poor fetal development.
The study comes at a time when the state’s Republican leaders have rolled back clean-water regulations. They’ve also joined dozens of other GOP-controlled states in suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to block federal laws aimed to prevent further degradation of water quality.
Gov. Scott Walker has politicized the Department of Natural Resources, firing many of its scientists and making it clear that business interests must be prioritized over maintaining clean water standards. In mid-May, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel ruled that environmental officials at the DNR cannot make decisions about high-capacity wells in order to prevent contaminants from spreading to local water supplies — not if large factory farms disagree with those decisions.
Aversion to conservation laws has led to a drastic reduction in the enforcement of the state’s increasingly lax water pollution standards.
Wisconsin voters, however, are concerned about pollution in lakes and streams, contamination of drinking water supplies and depleted aquifers. The fight to preserve clean water in the state is becoming a major issue in this year’s elections, including in the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
The head of a Flint hospital that found Legionnaires’ disease bacteria in its water system more than a year ago said he and experts suspected the Flint River was a likely source of the contaminant.
Don Kooy, president of McLaren hospital, said he was surprised that Michigan and local health agencies didn’t inform the public about a Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County in 2014–15 until just a few weeks ago.
The outbreak occurred while Flint residents were repeatedly complaining about dirty tap water coming from the river — a crisis that ultimately caused exposure to lead and other health problems.
“It’s a public health issue,” Kooy told The Associated Press. “There were people in the city of Flint seeing brown water. It would seem logical that there would have been public reporting or public awareness about the Legionella situation.”
At least 87 Legionnaires’ cases, including nine deaths, were confirmed across Genesee County during a 17-month period. Public officials say they haven’t determined if Flint River water was responsible.
Legionnaires’ is a type of pneumonia. The bacteria live in the environment and thrive in warm water. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor from contaminated water systems, hot tubs and cooling systems.
Kooy said two cases could have been related to exposure to Legionella bacteria found in the hospital. He said both patients were successfully treated.
“We were concerned that the city water was the source of it, but to this day I don’t think we could make a definitive statement,” he said.
McLaren hospital spent more than $300,000 on a water treatment system and also turned to bottled water for patients.
“The change in (Flint) water quality was a likely factor in causing the increase in Legionnaires’ disease,” said Janet Stout, a Pittsburgh microbiologist and Legionella expert who advised the hospital.
In April 2015, Laurel Garrison, a Legionnaires’ specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told state officials by email that the outbreak deserved a “comprehensive investigation.”
In an email three months earlier, Jim Collins, the head of Michigan’s Communicable Disease Division, said the number of cases at that time “likely represents the tip of the iceberg.”
Nonetheless, there was no public announcement at that time.
It was recently revealed that high levels of lead have been detected in Flint’s water since officials switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River as a cost-saving measure in April 2014. Some children’s blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.
An advisory panel to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Jan.22 recommended steps the state should take to restore reliable drinking water to Flint, including hiring an unbiased third-party to declare when the system is free of lead.
The recommendations came a day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the state and city that their efforts so far had failed. The agency ordered them to protect public health and act to ensure Flint’s water system is made safe.
A regional director of the EPA resigned in connection with the drinking water crisis on Jan. 21, the same day the agency’s chief issued an emergency order directing state and city officials to take action to protect public health.
The EPA said Susan Hedman, head of the agency’s regional office in Chicago whose jurisdiction includes Michigan, was stepping down Feb. 1 so the EPA could focus “solely on the restoration of Flint’s drinking water.”
While much of the blame has been directed at Snyder and state officials, particularly the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, some have faulted the EPA’s Region 5 office for not acting more forcefully.
The agency also released a letter from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Snyder outlining terms of the order.
Among other requirements, the agency said the city should: Submit plans for ensuring that Flint’s water has adequate treatment, including corrosion controls; ensure city personnel are qualified to operate the water system in a way that meets federal quality standards; and create a website where citizens can get information.
The agency also said it would begin sampling and analyzing lead levels and would make the results public.
Snyder told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he wants to bring in third-party experts to oversee water safety. He said state and local leaders were misled by career civil servants regarded as scientific experts on the subject.
“But as a practical matter, when you look at it today, and you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore,” he said.