Water pollution and E. Coli
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Sat Sep 11 07:56:10 MDT 1999
NY Times, September 11, 1999
Battling Outbreak, Giuliani Faces Tough Balancing Act
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
Stephen Athineos, the manager of a bicycle messenger service in Manhattan,
is perfectly clear on two things. The first is that the outbreak of St.
Louis encephalitis is a total fabrication of city officials. The second is
that they ought to be doing a much better job of containing it.
This attitude, while perhaps epidemiologically curious, underscores the
fine line that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani must walk as he navigates the
first real public health crisis of his tenure. The Mayor and health
officials are challenged to appear aggressive at controlling the illness,
which has claimed three lives, while at the same time trying not to create
hysteria. . .
At the same time, a severe outbreak of E. coli has state health officials
working overtime in upstate New York to inform and assist a worried public.
Officials have said they believe that heavy rain pushed water contaminated
with cow manure from a farm near the Washington County fairgrounds in
Greenwich into an aquifer, and from there into a well supplying water to
the fair. As of last evening, 1 child had died and 611 people were thought
to be infected, with 85 cases confirmed and 58 people hospitalized. . .
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
USA TODAY, October 21, 1998
Lax oversight raises tap water risks
Peter Eisler; Barbara Hansen; Aaron Davis
WASHINGTON -- When it comes to the nation's drinking water, there's no
punishment for pollution.
Each day, millions of Americans turn on their taps and get water that
exceeds legal limits for dangerous contaminants. Millions more get water
that isn't treated or tested properly, so there's no telling if it's clean.
Many people get sick. A few of them die.
And most of the time, nobody does anything about it.
A USA TODAY investigation finds that the federal and state programs charged
with enforcing the nation's safe drinking water laws aren't working,
undermined by inadequate funding, inaccurate data, a soft regulatory
approach and weak political support. Even the worst violations of drinking
water laws have just a 1 in 10 chance of drawing legal action by the
At the same time, powerful new pollutants imperil the water supply, from
hard-to-kill bacteria to industrial and agricultural toxins. Yet water
systems increasingly rely on aging pipelines, deficient treatment equipment
and poorly trained operators to make the water safe.
USA TODAY did hundreds of interviews and undertook a computer analysis of
millions of records from the nation's 170,000 regulated water systems
covering 1993-97, from the largest serving 6.6 million people in New York
City to tiny operations with just 25 customers, such as Hanks Trading Post
in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Next year will be the 25th year that the Safe Drinking Water Act has been
law. But the newspaper's investigation found that grave problems diminish
-- About 40,000 of the 170,000 water systems, serving about 58 million
people, violated testing requirements and purity standards last year. About
9,500 water systems, serving 25 million people, had "significant"
violations, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as posing the
"most serious threats to public health."
-- From 1994 through the start of 1997, only about 10% of all significant
violations drew enforcement action from government regulators. In fact,
fewer fines and lawsuits are imposed under safe drinking water laws than
any other major environmental statute.
-- More than a quarter of all significant violators have been in that
category for at least three years. Among systems with significant
violations at the end of 1996, for example, 35% still were out of
compliance as of Aug. 1 -- a year past the eight-month legal deadline to
return to compliance or sign a binding agreement to do so.
-- Eleven states have yet to implement all of the Safe Drinking Water Act's
contamination limits. At least 13 states don't meet federal guidelines
dictating that they inspect water systems every three to five years. A
half-dozen have not given their water programs the authority to levy fines.
-- The EPA has overlooked states' failure to uphold safe drinking water
laws. It never has used its authority to take control of a state regulatory
program, and the agency is more than a year behind in completing required
assessments of the drinking water programs in at least 11 states.
-- The computer database that serves as the EPA's primary tool to monitor
the 170,000 public water systems is so flawed that even the government
acknowledges that, used alone, it's an inaccurate measure of which systems
provide clean water from the tap.
None of this is to say that most Americans don't get clean water -- they
do. The vast majority of people are served by large water systems with good
records; most serious problems crop up in small systems.
Regulators and water system operators rightly note that the 40,000 water
systems that violated safe drinking water laws in 1997 constitute less than
a quarter of all systems nationwide. The 9,500 systems with "significant"
violations make up only 6%.
But experts warn that the combination of poor enforcement and growing
threats to water purity is bound to lead to trouble.
"The attitude is, 'Until there's a big body count, there's not a problem,'
" says James Elder, former head of the EPA's Office of Ground Water and
Drinking Water. "We haven't documented many major outbreaks, so everybody
claims the (regulatory) system is working."
New contamination threats
Most academic and government studies suggest that a million or so Americans
suffer gastrointestinal sicknesses each year from bad drinking water, and
as many as 1,000 may die. In some areas, water contamination is suspected
in cancers, miscarriages and birth defects. And the growing number of
people who live with weak immune systems -- chemotherapy patients,
transplant recipients, people with AIDS -- means the toll is likely to rise.
But no one knows for sure.
The most common symptoms of waterborne illness, nausea and diarrhea,
usually get blamed on stomach flus or bad food. So, while the government
has for years listed contaminated drinking water as a top environmental
health threat -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people
with immune deficiencies should consider boiling all tap water -- there's
been little call for strong regulation.
"Right now, we've got a sleepy (regulatory) program nationwide, and we have
a public that just assumes it will get clean water," says Steven Walden of
Texas' Water Utilities Division, a relatively aggressive oversight operation.
"But we've got . . . a lot of new threats to worry about," Walden adds.
"And with drinking water competing for resources with everything from roads
to libraries . . . there's not much support for spending money to make (the
Consequences are everywhere: For five years, Boston has failed to meet
requirements that it filter its water; in DeKalb, Ill., the water has
exceeded federal limits for radium since they were imposed 22 years ago; in
Ottawa County, Ohio, the Gem Beach Utility Co. has refused since 1994 to
meet treatment requirements for the water it draws directly from nearby
Most water problems tend to be in places no one has heard of: little towns,
mobile home parks, rest stops, private developments. Their smaller water
systems are more likely to lack the equipment and staff needed to meet
legal standards -- and more likely to escape regulators' attention.
The last time a major waterborne illness hit a big city was 1993, when a
parasite in Milwaukee's water killed 111 people and made 403,000 sick. It
remains the worst outbreak in modern U.S. history, but there have been
others since, from Las Vegas to Austin, Texas, to Alpine, Wyo.
Americans are beginning to notice: A recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found
47% of respondents won't drink water straight from the tap.
Congress and the Clinton administration have tried to address the concerns.
They revamped the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, providing more loans and
grants to help water systems and state oversight programs comply with the
law. Next year, utilities will start sending consumers detailed water
"The law certainly has made the situation much better than it would be
otherwise," says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who helped shape many of its
provisions. "But we've got to push for stricter enforcement and greater
commitment (to compliance). We still have very serious problems."
Illness in a small town
If state regulators had been making the required inspections of the water
system at The Corner Store in Groveland, N.Y., they would have seen an
accident waiting to happen.
But they never came.
They never found that the popular convenience shop, which sold gas, beer,
sandwiches and pizza, had a broken chlorinator and no filtration for the
water from its shallow well. They never told the store's operators that the
water system had to meet legal standards.
On June 22, 1996, John and Loretta Linsner paid the price.
The couple had The Corner Store cater a high school graduation party for
their daughter, and bacteria from the store's water got into the food.
Salmonella and Plesiomonas shigelloides, a rare tropical bug, poisoned the
Linsners and more than 100 friends and family. They were racked by diarrhea
"It was terrible," John Linsner says. "All I could do was go from bed to
the bathroom. I couldn't even walk. . . . Our (83-year-old) neighbor had to
go to the hospital in an ambulance."
The Linsners' story is typical: Small water systems serving 500 people or
fewer account for 86% of all systems with significant violations of
drinking water laws.
These systems can be in remote towns or in suburban developments, mobile
home parks or other communities that haven't hooked up with major water
supplies. They can serve small businesses, rest areas or public facilities
such as schools and hospitals.
"In the big city, there's more (oversight) and money to spend on good water
systems," says Susan Seacrest, formerly on EPA's National Drinking Water
Advisory Board and now head of the Groundwater Foundation. "Go to small
towns, everything looks clean, but many have decrepit systems that no one
pays attention to. Then you go to a farm or a little store with a shallow
well and no treatment . . . and you better bring bottled water."
In The Corner Store's case, the New York Department of Health, which
regulates water systems, didn't even know there was a system they should
have been checking. The agency hadn't registered it.
"The treatment certainly wasn't adequate for the kind of water source (the
store) had," says Michael Burke, director of New York's Bureau of Public
Water Supply. "They should have been monitoring (for contaminants). They
should have had an annual inspection."
Investigators eventually tied the contamination to waste washed into the
store's well from a poultry farm and manure-covered fields.
Burke says the total lack of oversight was an anomaly but concedes that
state regulators have trouble keeping tabs on the smallest of New York's
10,000 water systems.
"Our problems," he says, "are no different than the problems you're seeing
In one respect, the Linsners got lucky: The bacteria that hit them can kill
babies, elderly people and others with weak immune systems.
Now, the Linsners test their well water. They never drink water at
campgrounds and avoid it in restaurants and rest areas. They even wonder
about it at church socials.
"People say, 'Oh, we have good water. We won't have a problem,' " Linsner
says. "But they don't know."
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