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Jarring Flint Quote: 'People Have to Die of Something'

Scientist quotes former state health chief as saying that in 2016, though Nick Lyon denies it
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 10, 2019 8:25 AM CDT
A 2018 photo of Nick Lyon, former state health director in Michigan.   (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP, File)

(Newser) – Last week, the PBS program Frontline delivered a wrenching quote related to the Flint water crisis. "It's not safe. We're not ready. People are gonna die." The words were from a water plant foreman in 2014, just as the city began using the Flint River as the source for its water. Now comes another damning quote, this one allegedly uttered by then state health director Nick Lyon as he met with three concerned scientists two years later. One of the men warned Lyon that monitoring for Legionnaires' disease needed to be improved or people would die. "Unfortunately," Shawn McElmurry tells Frontline, "Nick Lyon’s response was that 'they’ll have to die of something.'" Lyon declined to be interviewed for the documentary that airs Tuesday night on PBS; his attorney denies he made the remark.

At the time of the May 2016 meeting, the city had already stopped using the Flint River, and cases of Legionnaires' disease—caused by bacteria in water—were already starting to drop. But the scientists were worried that warming weather could increase the number of cases and wanted to push Lyon for heightened monitoring. "It was a situation where you're just, I mean, you're just in shock as a result of him saying that—the director of the Health Department," says McElmurry. Legionnaires' would eventually be blamed for at least a dozen deaths in Flint and Lyon would be charged with involuntary manslaughter. However, prosecutors dropped charges against him and others this year, though they said a new investigation was taking place. (Read more Flint water crisis stories.)

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