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Did the Detroit Mayor’s Office Suppress Damaging Water Shutoffs Study?

Shutting off water to low-income residents because of their inability to pay city bills has sparked a growing public health crisis.

Demonstrators protest against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department July 18, 2014, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

Earlier this year, the Henry Ford Health System’s Global Health Initiative conducted a groundbreaking study on the water shut-offs that have left thousands of Detroit’s poorest residents without clean, safe water as the summer heats up.

The findings were, in a word, staggering. By cross-referencing the locations of the shut-offs with patient data from Henry Ford Hospital, the study authors found that patients from blocks with shut-offs were nearly 150 percent more likely to be diagnosed with water-associated illnesses, from skin and soft-tissue infections to GI infections.

It confirmed what Detroiters have been saying for the past three years: Shutting off water to low-income residents because of their inability to pay city bills has sparked a growing public health crisis.

“This is a call to action for every public health official in the area,” former Detroit Health Department Deputy Director George Gaines said in a press release at the time.

Or at least it should have been a call to action. In the weeks since its release, the report has suffered a virtual mainstream media blackout, garnering attention from local radio and some progressive websites, but only a brief mention in the Detroit Free Press and other major news outlets.

“I think this study needs to be circulated widely and studied in multiple settings,” said Nadia Gaber, a medical anthropology PhD student from University of California — San Francisco with the We the People of Detroit research collective, which partnered with Henry Ford. “This is the most definitive study, perhaps the only published study, understanding the connections between water shut-offs and water-based illnesses.”

The media response isn’t just a matter of journalistic priorities. The Henry Ford Health System — which employed over 15,000 people and brought in $5 billion in revenue in 2015 — maintains a close working relationship with the city, which is in its third year of mass water shut-offs.

Just four days before the study was released, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the CEO of Henry Ford Health System, along with two other local healthcare providers, announced a major new community partnership to train and employ Detroiters.

The study may have been a casualty of such political considerations. Monica Lewis-Patrick, We the People of Detroit’s CEO, said the April press conference announcing the study findings was cancelled after Henry Ford pulled its researchers. A press release was issued instead.

“All we know is that we were told by representatives of Henry Ford Health Systems and the Global Health Initiative that they could not speak to the issues because it would jeopardize some of their negotiations for contracts with the city of Detroit,” Lewis-Patrick said. “They were not allowing anyone to speak to these issues because of fear of reprisal from the mayor of Detroit. So it goes back to the mayor.”

Lewis-Patrick noted the positive impact of some of Henry Ford’s city contracts, like their health centers in Detroit schools, but said they must not come at the expense of informing Detroiters about the dangers of the city’s shutoff policy.

“The health and welfare of Detroiters should be the first concern and priority of both the mayor and Henry Ford Health Systems,” Lewis-Patrick said.

Brenda Craig, Henry Ford’s director of media relations, disputed that account, claiming that science, not politics, drove the decision to back away from the press conference.

“Regrettably the study is being used by some for purposes that were not intended and conclusions that are not accurate,” Craig said. “I think it would be premature and not responsible to do a press release and do a press conference for a study that is so limited in its scope and doesn’t really answer any questions.”

Craig declined to comment on whether and why other Henry Ford representatives would have cited political pressure from the mayor’s office, saying, “I can only speak for myself.”

Mayor Duggan’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

These are only the latest in a series of recent statements from Henry Ford suggesting a quiet retreat from its own research. When Bridge Magazine tried to interview study author Alexander Plum in May, Henry Ford officials appeared to downplay the findings, claiming it “found only a general correlation” and “can’t be used to determine any direct cause and effect.”

Craig reiterated that to the Great Lakes Beacon, saying the study showed only a “preliminary association.”

But just because it did not establish causation doesn’t make the study, which sampled the data of more than 37,000 patients, any less scientifically sound, Gaber said.

“It’s a statistically significant association that persists even after controlling for economic status,” she said. “It’s not just the poorest people that end up with these diseases, it’s [specifically] people who live on blocks with water shut-offs.”

Erosion of water access has to be understood within the context of privatization, Lewis-Patrick said. Together with foreclosures, much of Detroit is being made unlivable for residents and extremely profitable for the financial interests lining up to buy their property, often for pennies on the dollar.

“A lot of people think emergency managers are gone, but now they have a shadow government called the financial review commissions, which are unelected and unaccountable to Detroit residents,” she said.

Lewis-Patrick stresses the democracy and water issues facing Detroit are national in scope, too, citing a separate study — this one from Michigan State University — that shows nearly 36 percent of US households will be unable to afford their water in five years’ time.

Against this grim backdrop, the lessons of the Henry Ford water report are as urgent as ever.

“I hope it sparks conversation about the true consequences of the water shutoff policy and the consequences to come if the City of Detroit and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department continue to shut people off block by block,” Gaber said.

And it’s a conversation that, overdue as it is, may remain a long time coming.

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