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FRONTLINE: Flint's Deadly Water

The two-year FRONTLINE investigation, "Flint’s Deadly Water," uncovers the extent of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak during the Flint water crisis — and how officials failed to stop it.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE
The two-year FRONTLINE investigation, "Flint’s Deadly Water," uncovers the extent of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak during the Flint water crisis — and how officials failed to stop it.

Airs Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019 at 10 p.m. + Thursday, Sept. 12 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2

The Flint water crisis has become known for the lead poisoning of thousands of children.

But an exclusive new FRONTLINE investigation reveals the story of another, deadly problem with the water unfolding at the same time — that few people know about.

“Flint’s Deadly Water,” documents an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease during the water crisis that has continued to claim lives in the city five years later.


FRONTLINE’s investigation shows how people were getting sick and dying from the severe form of pneumonia caused by waterborne bacteria for more than a year before the public was notified.

Flint’s Deadly Water | Preview

“Most people outside of Flint look at the lead issue as the main issue,” Flint city council member Eric Mays tells FRONTLINE. “But the killer has been Legionnaires’… I still don't think that they want people outside of Flint to know.”

“Flint’s Deadly Water” is based on two years of enterprise reporting by a FRONTLINE team in Flint. It draws on exclusive interviews, internal state emails and documents obtained by FRONTLINE, and a sweeping analysis of every death in the county since the start of the water crisis.

The FRONTLINE documentary includes multiple new revelations — shedding light on the roots and extent of the deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak, how officials failed to stop it, and the legal effort to hold them accountable.

“Officially, twelve people in Flint died from the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, but our investigation has found that the death toll was likely far higher,” says director Abby Ellis, herself a Michigan native.


For two years, Ellis, reporters Kayla Ruble and Jacob Carah, and FRONTLINE Senior Editor Sarah Childress (all Michigan natives) have been digging into how the outbreak happened, why it continued for more than a year before state officials alerted the public — and the consequences of that delay for the people of Flint.

In stories on its website, FRONTLINE broke the news that the outbreak’s official death toll had likely been severely undercounted.

"They'll Have to Die of Something"

Now, with numerous sources speaking publicly for the first time, “Flint’s Deadly Water” dramatically expands on that reporting — uncovering unheeded warnings, revealing new details about state and county officials’ responses to the epidemic, and methodically tracing the chain of decisions that allowed the outbreak to continue unabated, even as it claimed victim after victim.

As part of the effort to understand the extent of the outbreak, FRONTLINE brought its findings to multiple independent scientists — including a team at Emory University in Atlanta, who concluded that the Legionnaires’ outbreak was in fact larger than had been officially reported.

The investigation also examines the criminal cases against multiple officials — including the state’s top two health officials, who were charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office — and then the recent decision by new prosecutors to drop all the charges.

It’s a comprehensive, richly detailed investigation that expands public understanding of the Flint water crisis, and asks whether anyone will ever be held accountable.

Flint Water Crisis Continues its Deadly Toll Five Years After It Began

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A FRONTLINE production with Five O’Clock Films. The writer and director is Abby Ellis. The producers are Abby Ellis and Kayla Ruble. The reporters are Kayla Ruble, Jacob Carah, Abby Ellis, and Sarah Childress. The co-producers are Jacob Carah and Sarah Childress. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.