Study says some Detroit residents at risk of skin, soft tissue infections due to water shut offs

- Detroit's water shut-offs have been controversial for years but health experts say that by doing so, it puts people at a greater risk of infectious diseases.

Wayne State law professor Peter Hammer slammed the city of Detroit for shutting off water to Detroiters who can't pay their bills. He estimates 100,000 households from 2014 to 2017 experienced shut offs.

Hammer, the director of the Keith Center for Civil Rights, now points to a new study from Henry Ford researchers that people who live on city blocks where the water has been shut off are more likely to contract skin and soft tissue infections as well as waterborne bacterial infections.

It appears Hammer and other water rights activists are at war with the city.

"This is a public health emergency," Hammer said. "I didn't know that I was a threat to Homeland Security by saying that people's health was threatened if they didn't have water."

Hammer says the Great Lakes Water Authority threat assement division notified Wayne State Police that a protest was taking place at the law school. There wasn't a protest but there were people angry with the system.

People like Rochelle Weatherspoon who got the bad news at a horrible time.

"I got out of the hospital - I had paid my little $80 to the water company and they still cut me off the day I got out of the hospital," she said.

"There is an imminent harm to the citizens of Detroit when you continue to shut off water. We are seeing that this harm - many of the program that they're offering, are more marketing strategies and more marketing ploys than real solutions," said Monica Lewis-Patrick, President, We The People.

"What's most important and immediate is to have an immediate moratorium on water shutoffs," retired Obstetrician Dr. Paul Von Oeyen said.

Late in the day on Wednesdsay, Henry Ford Hospital said their study was being used for political purposes.

Doctor Marcus Zervos released this statement:

"As the senior author on this project, I am disheartened by the reaction of activist groups. We approached this issue as an exploratory effort into the possible public health impact of water shutoffs, understanding that the results would only be preliminary and shape the framework for a future comprehensive cause and effect study. Unfortunately, this study continues to be used for political purposes and our health system's integrity is being unfairly challenged. This is unacceptable as we have a stellar reputation for public health and medical research.

As we have consistently put forth, there were multiple limitations and challenges with the process, including:

  • The data set obtained from the FOIA request to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was incomplete. The addresses had been partially redacted, so only the first two numbers of the address were included. This means we could not identify which specific houses experienced a water shutoff.

  • We could not evaluate what directly caused an individual's illness, meaning, we could not make any association between a patient's infection and water shutoffs. 

It's reasonable to conclude that there would be some impact to public health caused by water shutoffs. We believe more research is needed and will continue to consider options for the development of a definitive research project."

The city fired back on the report and said since the first financial assistance program in 2014, $8 million has been spent to ehlp 6,300 customers who have had difficulty paying their bills:

"DWSD and the City of Detroit are committed to helping Detroiters keep their water service on. In 2014, we launched the city's first assistance program to do just that. In the past year and a half, we have provided $8 million in financial assistance through our WRAP program to 6,300 customers who have had difficulty paying their bills. Another 22,000 customers have been able to keep their water on by getting into an affordable payment plan. Because of these programs, 82% of customers who were at risk of shut off this year have been taken off of that list. If a customer does experience a service interruption, 90% of the time their service is restored within 48 hours after they come into a customer service center to seek assistance or apply for a payment plan. We encourage members of the community to help get others who may not be aware of our assistance programs into one of our customer service centers immediately so their water service can be restored."

The city's assistance programs are available but activists say there's a difference between assistance and affordability. With so many people living in poverty, activists want people to pay what they can and keep the water on.

"The irony is if you move to water affordability you actually get higher revenues. It's one of the few areas where you have a win-win-win scenario and yet the city has been walking away from that for over a decade," Hammer said.

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