Walkerton EColi Crisis Essay Research Paper Residents

Walkerton E.Coli Crisis Essay, Research Paper

Residents of Walkerton were informed of a contamination in their water on May 21, 2000. The contamination was caused by E.coli, which “…are bacteria that are commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals. There are different types of E. coli, some of which are not harmful to people and some, which cause serious illness. It is commonly known as Hamburger Disease’.” (http://town.walkerton.on.ca/walkerton2/index2.htm) The contamination was discovered to have been from cow manure from farms surrounding Walkerton’s water wells. What’s worse than the contamination itself is the fact that suspicions of fecal coliform date back to 1978. Also, “…the Ministry [of Environment]’s Owen Sound Office … received faxes from GAP Enviromicrobial Laboratories once in January and again in April of 2000… indicat[ing] the probable presence of coliform bacteria in the Walkerton water system.” ( http://www.newswire. ca/government/ontario/english/releases/May2000/29/c9024.html) No E.coli was found at this time and the majority of E.coli symptoms did not show up until Wednesday, May 17, Thursday, May 18, and Friday, May 19 (http://www.srhip.on.ca/bgoshu2/Walkerton/Background.html) Many can not understand that there could be any circumstance that could delay such an issue from being heralded to the citizens of the town of which it was affecting. These feelings are especially evident in those affected, since realizing that the contamination of the deadly virus Escherichia coli 0157:H7 was confirmed as being in the town’s drinking water on May 15, 2000. That was six days when citizens could have been told and saved from being infected with E.coli and becoming very ill and some even dying. “Six people died [directly from E.coli], 2,300 others became ill and some of the children who survived face a lifetime of illness.” (The Toronto Star, The Walkerton Story, 1)

Symptoms resulting from E.coli contamination include “… stomach cramps, diarrhea (possibly bloody) fever, nausea and vomiting… It is important that [affected individuals] wash [their] hands, after going to the bathroom, and preparing food for others.” (http://www.srhip.on. ca/bgoshu2/Walkerton/MinistryInformation.htm) Due to ignorance, many residents of Walkerton (including a doctor), purchased diarrhea antibiotics when E.coli symptoms began. This is generally not recommended as complications may arise from the use of antibiotics and antimatility medications. An E. coli infection usually can only be left to run its course. Handwashing is important for those who had E.coli symptoms within 3 weeks. This is especially important after using a bathroom of before preparing food. In all occasions where possible, someone who is not affected should prepare food.

Individuals infected with E.coli 0157:H7 may suffer some serious long term effects. If hemolytic uremic syndrome’ (HUS) is developed, kidney failure may be the result. “HUS is a serious complication of E. coli infection.” (http://www.srhip.on.ca/bgoshu2/Walkerton/ LongTermEffects.htm) Those most greatly at risk of HUS include young children (especially those under 5 years of age) and the elderly. Another rare effect of E.coli is a Campylobacter infection, which is called Guillane-Barre syndrome (GBS). This syndrome may lead to paralysis of arms and legs and it can progress to respiratory muscles over 2-3 weeks. The development of joint pain called “reactive arthritis” is a second potential consequence of Campylobacter. Illness in other body parts including the gall bladder, pancreas, liver, urinary tract, blood stream, skin, bone or joints can also sometimes be caused by Campylobacter.

All individuals who work and/or live in Walkerton had to deal with many problems. Businesses were forced to abide by rules laid out for them by the Medical Officer of Health on May 21, 2000. These rules were very strict and detailed and included the following: Any water given to the customers is to be commercially “bottled” water; All foods (e.g. fruits and vegetables) are to be rinsed or soaked only in commercially “bottled” water; All ice must be made with commercially “bottled” water, or must originate from a commercial ice supply distributor; Employees must wash and rinse the hands in water that has been treated with chlorine bleach and this solution must also be provided in all; Commercial dishwashers can be used provided that the wash water is sufficiently clean and is maintained at a specific temperature; Dishes washed by hand must use the three compartment sink method with proper chlorine amounts; Soft drink beverage lines must be disconnected and bottle or canned beverages must be used exclusively; Any employee reporting they are suffering from a diarrheal illness must be excluded from work until they are cleared of E.coli; and lastly, signs advising not to drink the tap water must be posted at all sinks.

As for houses, many new routines were formed amongst all residents of Walkerton. Simple tasks like washing dishes and food, bathing and showering, brushing teeth, doing laundry and even wiping off counter tops that used to take little time, was now doubled or even tripled in time and effort. With a lot of these, you had the option of either trusting your luck and using the contaminated water or using boiled water. This was the case with washing dishes and clothes, and wiping off counter tops. When bathing and showering, you had the option of chancing it with the highly chlorinated water or going to an out of town friend or relative. The same was the case for laundry, except their was also the added bonus of an out of town laundry mat. Even a simple task like brushing your teeth consisted of getting out a bottle of water, pouring it into a glass, putting your brush into the glass to wet it, putting on the toothpaste, brushing your teeth and swooshing your brush around in the glass of water. Most of the times the toothpaste still would not come of the brush so you ended up running water over it anyhow.

“The PUC’s mandate included providing the people of Walkerton with a continuous and abundant supply of pure and wholesome water.’ ” (Toronto Star, 2) In the following facts all from The Walkerton Story from The Toronto Star, this statement is profoundly proven wrong: In 1977, A complaint is made about funny tasting water. High mineral content in Well 1 and 2 is discovered to be the reason for this. Well 5 is drilled, but it is built near a barnyard and problems occur and fecal coliform is found. Recommendations are made that the PUC ignores. Well 6 is drilled but it is high in nitrate – which indicated agricultural contaminations. Minor repairs are made to the well. It is later seen to be is an area at “high risk for contamination” in 1986. Well 7 is dug only a few metres from Well 6 and even though provincial rules require a backup chlorinator, only one is installed. E.coli and coliform are found in October of 1995. It is found on an average of five to seven times a year following this. Tory cutbacks make it impossible for more to be done.

Throughout these twenty-one years many warnings were also given to Walkerton which were ignored. In 1977, when drilling Well 5, the driller and the consulting engineer warn that the well is not secure, but it is built regardless. In 1982, when Well 6 is being drilled, a series of warnings about the quality of water seem to have no effect on the PUC. In late 1982, a Walkerton councillor voiced his concern to the PUC. The councillor feared that runoff from cattle farms will flood the wells with bacteria. On January 4, 1983, the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority suggested that the PUC not build beyond Well 6. In 1988, an environment ministry scientist warned that intensive agricultural operations threatened Ontario’s groundwater. Provincial auditor Erik Peters uncovered the incriminating 1992 report revealing widespread problems in Ontario water treatment plants. After doing a few of his own testing, he found similar results and made suggestions to the ministry who promised “to clean up their act”. Walkerton was told to notify the Owen Sound office as soon as unsafe drinking water is descried in June of 1995. Lastly, on February 6, 1996, Walkerton council was given a proposal from the Ontario Clean Water Agency to run the town’s water and wastewater treatment plants. All the equipment would have been brought up to rigorous standards by the company. For example, backup chlorinators would have been installed at the wells. This proposal was turned down because, according to one councillor, council did not want an outside agency interfering with its jurisdiction.

Although Walkerton’s problem is much greater, there have been other towns and countries with similar problems. Some of these include: the Toronto area in 1980 where a group of people were believed to be exposed to E.coli 0157:H7 after drinking apple juice; Oregon, where in 1982, twenty-six people suffered from severe stomach cramps, abdominal pain and watery/bloody diarrhea caused by E.coli 0157:H7 found in undercooked hamburgers from a fast-food chain; Pennsylvania, where a “… meat processor recall[ed] more than a quarter-million pounds of beef contaminated with potentially deadly E.coli bacteria” (http://www.ecoli.cas.psu. edu/ecoli/News/ food/hamburger.htm#11); Milwaukee, where an E.coli outbreak, caused by a teakhouse, sickened more than a dozen people, including a 3-year-old girl, who was critically ill; and Alberta where a 6-year-old girl was severely ill from E.coli caused by the livestock surrounding her country home.

Although we are having many water problems now, many preventative measures have been taken by the government throughout the years to try to improve the water quality. These were all shown in The Walkerton Story by The Toronto Star. In 1983, the Ontario government updated its Ontario Drinking Water Objectives, which are goals, not laws, that municipalities are asked to follow. Through this it is advised that if any fecal matter is detected in the water, a senior environment ministry official should be notified. In 1986, safe drinking water became a priority under new Liberal Environment Minister Jim Bradley. He issued routine tests to be carried out and created the Drinking Water Surveillance Program, which monitored the water quality. In 1990, the newly elected NDP government of Bob Rae vows to introduce a Safe Drinking Water Act which would give the force of law to Ontario’s quality of water. In 1994, the environment ministry published a revised Ontario Drinking Water Objectives. Small water treatment plants, like Walkerton PUC, were told to take weekly bacteriological samples or raw and treated water. If E.coli is found, it is to be conveyed to the environment ministry district officer and then the medical officer of health and the operating authority. It also stated that in such a situation, a boil-water order is to be issued if necessary and a high dose of chlorine is to be flushed through the system. In November of 1995, several water experts and environment ministry microbiologist Jenkins, created the Drinking Water Coordinating Committee to deal with a drastic decrease in competent ministry staff dedicated to water by finding a way to ensure that cutbacks do not lapse drinking water standards. On May 6, 1996, Environment Minister Brenda Elliott proclaimed Drinking Water Awareness Week. Through these examples, we see that things were done in the past to prevent this situation from happening, but through ignorance and misconceptions many preventative steps were ignored.

Through articles collected from The Walkerton Herald Times, the various events within the six months of water contamination are seen. Many restaurants were closed down. Newman’s being the first, which closed down on Thursday, May 25; Brockton began hiring individuals to help out citizens of Walkerton. The first being a number specialist to assist in handling the water system crisis in Walkerton on May 31; Zellers’ customers wishing to donate their ClubZ points to the Walkerton hospital were encouraged to do so on May 31. 32,000,000 were allocated and more were collected over the month of June; Disinfection of Walkerton homes began on June 12; Walkerton restaurants get back into business in the beginning of June. Of these is Tim Horton’s which had been operating out of a mobile trailer since May 25; Door-to-door cleanup gets underway in the beginning of June; Local schools begin to be taught out of town on June 7; No new cases of E.coli were expected or did occur, after July 13, which is the length of two incubation periods; Pipe Replacement began around the end of August; Watershed Festival was held on September 3 and raised over $500,000 for resident of Walkerton; The boil water advisory was lifted on December 5. With all of these articles, we also see that over the whole period, many Relief Funds were formed and lots of money was donated to them and other various places, such as local schools and businesses.

Why did it take the government, the PUC and all others involved so long to tell the citizens of Walkerton about the situation? We still do not have an answer for this, perhaps they felt that they could cover it up and no one would know about it. During the time of this E.coli finding, Walkerton had recently spent a large sum of money on tourism, perhaps they felt that if they said anything, Walkerton may have been given an image of being unsanitary and all of this money would have been wasted. For whatever reason, these people put many lives at risk with their procrastination. Had they owned up to their mistake from the start, we would not have had to drink from water bottles, and wash our hands with bleach and drive to another town to wash our clothes at $1.50 a load, so as not to get them bleach-stained. This author is vastly appalled with the news that Walkerton not only built three wells in hazardous terrain, but was also fully warned about the dangers of the locations of these wells. No one knows the real and full reasons for the occurrence of this situation, and perhaps no one ever will, but through these experiences we can learn a lot about ourselves and the people we trust.

Works Cited

Long-term consequences of E. coli O157:H7, http://www.srhip.on.ca/bgoshu2/Walkerton/LongTermEffects.htm

Symptoms of infection of E.coli,


Medical Officer of Health Regulations for Restaurants,


Background of important events,


The Ministry of Environment fax report,


The Walkerton Story, The Toronto Star-August 10

The Walkerton Herald Times, Brockton hires specialists to cope with crisis- May 31; Restaurants take measures to protect public- May 31; Zellers points to help E.coli victims- June 7; Door-to-door clean-up planned- June 7; Some local restaurants get back to business- June 7; Pipe replacement now underway- August 23; and Local schools bus students out of town- June 7.



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