Study Finds Walkerton Residents Felt 'Like Lepers'

May 1, 2003
Profound feelings of isolation overwhelmed many residents of Walkerton, Ontario, in the aftermath of the town's tainted-water tragedy three years ago, preliminary results of a new study show.

The finding looked at the emotional and other impacts the crisis -- which killed seven people and made 2,500 ill -- had on the community of 5,000 and how well people coped.

One key finding is that even though outside help and sympathy poured into the community, Walkerton residents were sometimes shunned as contagious when they visited other centers, and friends and family refused to visit, sometimes for months.

"People felt isolated and ostracized by the outside world,'' states the independent study conducted by researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and the University of Victoria.

"It was like being a leper,'' one Walkerton resident told the researchers.

Reports of similar feelings of isolation have surfaced during the SARS outbreak that has hit Toronto, with outsiders canceling visits to the city, suspicion of residents going abroad and quarantine for those possibly exposed to the virus.

Another unexpected finding was the impact the sound of helicopters had on many people "as iconic of the sickness,'' the study found.

At the height of the crisis in May 2000, choppers made numerous emergency runs to big-city hospitals with those most critically ill from the E. coli bacteria that had contaminated Walkerton's drinking water.

"For the citizens of Walkerton, it may be many years before than can hear the sound of a helicopter and not fear for their fellow residents,'' the study concludes.

The overwhelming majority of residents reported major emotional upset in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

Even a year later, more than half reported feelings of nervousness, stress and sleep disorders. Another one in four said they were fearful of their future health prospects and almost as many said they were still angry over the outbreak.

And two years later, more than one-third complained of ongoing crisis-related emotional trauma.

The study also found differences in the way men and women heard about the boil-water advisory. Most men reported hearing it on the radio, while most women heard it by word of mouth.

As a result, one key lesson to emerge from the tragedy is that a "multi-faceted approach to the provision of warnings'' should be in place in any emergency-preparedness plan.

The study concludes that most people in Walkerton were affected in some way by the crisis and that many still suffered some effects two years later.

Begun in May last year, the initial study results are based on in-depth surveys of more than 100 Walkerton households. A final report on the study is expected this summer.

Source: Canadian Press