Canada E.Coli Death Toll May Rise to 18

TORONTO (Reuters) – The death toll from an outbreak of deadly E. coli bacteria that swept through a small Ontario town last month may be raised to 18, Canadian health officials said on Tuesday.

Health officials said they were investigating four more deaths that could be linked to the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario, a farming community of 5,000 about 200 kilometres (125 miles) northwest of Toronto.

Ontario’s chief coroner said four more deaths had been reported to the provincial police, raising the total number of possible E. coli-related deaths in the Walkerton area to 18.

Police added the deaths of an elderly man and woman as well as a 25-year-old man in Walkerton to their investigation. The death of an elderly man in nearby Hanover is also being looked into.

Health authorities have confirmed that at least seven people died from water contaminated by E. coli bacteria during the epidemic, which began in late May and affected about 2,000 people in and around Walkerton.

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a common bacterium usually found in the intestines of humans and animals. Some strains–like the often lethal 0157 variety that hit Walkerton–can cause dangerous, even life-threatening, infections.

Officials do not yet know exactly how the deadly bug got into Walkerton’s water system but suspect heavy rains may have washed infected manure into the farming community’s wells.

Investigation of E. coli outbreak continues

WALKERTON, ONTARIO — Canadian police and health officials are still investigating how wells in this town 90 miles west of Toronto were infected with E. coli, which has sickened hundreds and killed at least five people. Police also are investigating whether local officials broke laws by failing to report water problems immediately.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s environmental minister, Dan Newman, announced new regulations that would require all of the province’s municipalities to use accredited water-testing labs and to inform the government when hiring a new, private testing firm, according to The Associated Press.

Water plants also would be reviewed and certified every three years, and the ministry would clarify procedures requiring laboratories to notify health officials, city officials and the environment ministry of irregularities.

As of Sunday, the number of people getting sick from the bacteria found in the water supply has decreased. However, officials said several of the hospitalized patients may still die.

E. coli, spread through human and animal feces, may have entered Walkerton’s wells in flooding that followed a storm May 12. City officials said that a chlorinating system on one of the town’s two main wells was malfunctioning for weeks before residents started getting sick.

A provincial water agency took control of the local water utility last week after it was disclosed that the utility knew as early as May 18 about the contamination. A boil-water order was issued for Walkerton May 21 after residents reported illnesses.

One class action lawsuit already has been filed, accusing local officials of failing to promptly notify Walkerton residents of the contamination.

Two nearby communities, Wingham and Freelton, also have found E. coli contamination in water supplies. In Wingham, the contamination was found in a school, which has since been shut down. Freelton was placed under a boil-water order after traces of the bacteria was found in its water.

However, neither case apparently is linked to the Walkerton contamination.

Trucks carrying bottled water moved through Walkerton Sunday, with volunteers carrying the donated cases to doorsteps in some areas.

Copyright 2000 National Trade Publications, Inc. 

Death Came in the Water

E. coli breaks out at a N.Y. county fair

BY AMANDA SPAKE

At first, the illness was a mystery. The Washington County Fair in Greenwich, N.Y., was great fun, but two days later, the Aldrich girls had become feverish, irritable, and lethargic. Their doctor sent them to a local hospital and Kaylea, 2, seemed to improve. But 3-year-old Rachel grew sicker. On Friday, September 3, she was rushed to the pediatric intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center Hospital, where she and her sister were found to be infected with the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium from drinking water at the fair.

At Albany, Wayne and Lori Aldrich watched helplessly as Rachel’s heart stopped, cutting off oxygen to her brain. Her kidneys failed and she was not able to breathe on her own. Late Saturday afternoon, September 4, on the day she was to celebrate her fourth birthday, Rachel died in her parents’ arms.

Now, the Aldriches sit by Kaylea’s bedside as she remains in serious condition, on kidney dialysis like 10 other children who went to the fair. They are among over 600 people thought to be infected with the bacterium. If confirmed, this would be one of the largest E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks on record. The great risk now, according to the New York State Department of Health, is further person-to-person spread of the organism.

How did a supposedly safe drinking-water system become the source of a major outbreak? The health department’s theory is that a torrential rainstorm in late August washed manure-laden water from cattle exhibits into loose soil around an auxiliary well at the fairgrounds. This contaminated surface water mixed with the well’s usual source, a ground-water aquifer, which had fallen low because of this summer’s drought. Unlike other wells supplying the fair, the auxiliary well was not chlorinated. Once the well was in use, contaminated water was pumped to food and drink vendors. Two vendors, one of whom has developed symptoms of infection, may have taken water to another New York fair.

But the Greenwich fiasco points up a greater problem: Treatment and monitoring of drinking water cannot be taken for granted. Kristine Smith, spokesperson for the New York Department of Health, says that since the fairgrounds’ water system was considered private, only limited treatment and testing was mandated by the state, and the system was not subject to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

But J. Charles Fox, assistant administrator for the Office of Water at the EPA, is not so sure. “This seems to be what we call a transient noncommunity water system,” says Fox: It is a system that serves the public on an intermittent basis. Smith says the EPA is wrong because the system “does not operate for 60 days a year”–though, as the Washington County Fair office confirms, it serves thousands of people at different events throughout the year.

Higher standards. Upcoming EPA rules will probably require disinfection of ground-water systems like this one, Fox says. And the EPA has been tightening standards for all water systems since renewal of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996.

But states don’t always enforce testing requirements, and water-systems managers don’t always report violations to the state or the federal government. A recent draft of an EPA audit of 1,800 public water systems and 27 state programs shows monitoring of water quality and reporting of violations are, in Fox’s words, “exceptionally weak.” While many of the infractions identified in the audit are inconsequential, about one third involve failure to report excessive coliform bacteria, such as E. coli, or failure to treat water for bacterial contaminates. Fox says that “there is nothing in this that should make people feel less confident about their water.” Yet EPA studies show that the U.S. drinking water system “suffers from long-term neglect and serious deterioration.” The cost for fixing the problem is an estimated $12.1 billion–just to meet existing EPA standards, not the more stringent upcoming regulations.

Within the next month, everyone on a water system with more than 25 customers should receive in the mail his first “Consumer Confidence Report.” The reports are now required by law to inform consumers about microbial and chemical contaminants and any violations of EPA regulations by the water supplier–at least those that have been reported. But as the outbreak at the Washington County Fairgrounds shows, it is not what we know about our water that may be most significant, but what we don’t know!

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