Dec 28, 2000

E. coli Contamination Ignored

The water utility in Walkerton, Ontario, knew the town's water supply was contaminated but took no action. The result? Five people dead.

Canadian health officials announced this to be the worst E. coli outbreak ever, leaving five people, including a two-year-old girl, dead. A reported five children and four adults are left in critical condition. Causes are still unknown. However, it is suspected that flooding after a heavy rainstorm on May 12 may have caused animal manure to infiltrate the community water supply.

In a statement, the Grey-Bruce region's health unit said the water utility for Walkerton has acknowledged that the machine that helps purify the town's drinking water with chlorine has not worked properly for some time.
The company conducted its own water tests and knew the water was contaminated since Thursday, May 18, "but they did not report this to us on Thursday nor did they tell us this on Friday," the health unit said.

Dr. Murray McQuigge, health officer for the region, said today he was notified last week of cases of bloody diarrhea and asked the utility about the water supply.

He said the utility assured officials that the water was safe, and repeated that assurance after more illness emerged over the weekend.

The utility workers were reportedly unaware of how dangerous E. coli can be.

McQuigge said he suspected contaminated water when he began receiving reports from local doctors of bloody diarrhea cases in the area last week. He said Thursday he asked the Public Utility Commission on three occasions last week if the water was clean and was told it was.

Despite the assurances, he said, health officials issued an order Sunday for people to boil drinking water because they were convinced the water supply was contaminated.

The chief medical officer of health for Ontario and the region's public health unit said water samples were taken from Walkerton on Sunday and Monday for testing, which confirmed the water was in fact contaminated.

Cairns, the coroner, said officials fear the outbreak could spread outside Walkerton because the town is near a tourist attraction and many travelers passed through the region.

(Source: CNN and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)