E. coli: The Invisible Danger

ecoli bacterium

BC boast’s some of the best drinking water in the world. But when one simple, common bacteria, E. coli enters your water source, your drinking water can become deadly. This is what the town of Chilliwack, BC has encountered. But what are your options when your water source becomes infected by this bacterium and what exactly is E. coli?

The silent killer

E. coli is a very inconspicuous bacterium. With no smell or taste, it can be near impossible to tell that your water or food is harboring it and can leave you clinging to your life. The most common breeding grounds for E. coli are human or animal intestines. When the correct steps have not been taken to compost cow manure and it is used as a fertilizer, vegetables and fruits can become contaminated. There are hundreds of strains of E. coli, some of them more deadly and advanced than the others and tests have found that the most deadly strains have evolved since the 60’s. [1] E. coli is easily passed from hand to hand or mouth contact. Most cases of E. coli can clear up by themselves but some cases can cause hospitalization or death. Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a severe strain of the bacterium that can cause serious illness. Symptoms include, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Some strains of E. coli can even cause urinary tract infections. With its easily spread nature; it’s not surprising that E. coli can end up in our water source. Rain can cause E. coli bacterium, coming from animal and human wastes, to be washed into ground water, creeks, or springs that are used as sources of drinking water.

E. coli in action

In Febuary 2013, this is what happened in Chilliwack, BC. A boil water advisory was given to residents of the Greendale area within the city after E. coli bacteria had been found in the water supply. The local health authority proposed that in order to continue operating as a municipal drinking water system, immediate chlorination of the water to prevent the spread and outbreak of the E. coli bacteria would need to take place within the city. This proposal came after the bacterium had been found not just this time, but in three separate samples taken over the last few years. It was determined that the bacterium had most likely made its way into the system through bird or bat droppings getting into hilltop reservoirs. The E.coli strain found in the water was not deadly but posed many health risks to citizens and was detected in three per cent of the houses that ran on the water system. [2]

The citizens outlook

But Chilliwack’s Mayor Sharon Gaetz had other thoughts. She was furious at the idea of chlorinating the city’s water and emphasized the pride that the people of Chilliwack take in the quality of their water. As well as pointing out how adding chlorine would affect the taste, she explained that chlorine is linked to colon and bladder cancer. She claimed that previous cases of E. coli in Chilliwack’s water were isolated and that sanitation measures were taken to prevent any further contamination. The citizens of Chilliwack felt the same way as their mayor, creating an online petition against the health authority’s proposal. According to Gaetz, the levels of E. coli tested very low for this incident, in fact, the lowest you can read for E. coli. [3]

The outcome

Despite Gaetz’s and other citizen’s efforts to oppose the proposal, the city of Chilliwack was forced to begin chlorinating it’s water a few weeks later under the province’s Drinking Water Protection Act. The chief medical officer of the Fraser Health Authority, Dr. Van Buynder pointed out that any level of E. coli, no matter how low, is dangerous and that water should simply not contain E. coli readings. [4] One day after chlorination began, Greendale’s water was retested and it was determined that Chilliwack’s water supply was E. coli free. The chlorination system remained on standby until further testing was done to explain why E. coli had been present on previous reports. A week later The Fraser Health authority had instructed the City of Chilliwack to begin chlorinating their water full time. A $1.5 million chlorination system had to be upgraded, at the expense of water users and grants. [5]

Other cases we’ve seen

Many citizens we’re disappointed that their online petition was not a success and insisted that they were going to continue to fight. But not every case of E. coli contamination has ended as positively as this one. In May 2007 in Walkerton, Ontario the water supply became contaminated by a deadly strain of the bacteria. About 5,000 people in the small community became sick and seven people died as a result of the contaminated water. [6] As well, in 2011 sprouts from an organic farm in the Northern German village of Bienenbuettel were linked to 51 deaths in Germany, one in the U.S. and one in Sweden. 4,000 people fell ill because of the incident. [1]

For now, though their water may not win any more awards any time soon, the citizens of Chilliwack can rest assured that their water is 100% safe for consumption and E. coli free. Tanks are now being monitored 50 times a week as opposed to the required 21 times. [2] Citizens can avoid the chlorine taste in their new water system by installing a water filter on their tap that uses activated carbon.


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