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Boil Water Order

February 1, 2015

What a relief to drink tap water again!  What a relief to stop drinking boiled water.  What a relief to return to my routine.

A few days ago, I was at a meeting at a community centre when one of the employees handed us a notice from the city and told us not to drink the water.  The notice said that E coli had been found in several samples of city water, and that the entire city was under a boil water order.  That’s over half a million people.  We took this order quite seriously.  We didn’t make coffee for our coffee break.  I’m sure we all thought of the Walkerton incident, where several people died because of E coli in the drinking water.

At home after the meeting, I read about what had happened in our city.  Stores sold out of bottled water right after the announcement.  I started emptying my kettle into a glass container right after I made tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.  When it had cooled, I poured it into a plastic bottle that I kept in the fridge.  Even cold, the water had a wretched taste.  At least it was safe to drink.  The next morning, I got into a new routine of maintaining a litre of boiled water in the fridge.  I even used it to make a jug of orange juice from the frozen concentrate.

The next day, I read about a press conference that the city held the previous evening.  It provided some information, but didn’t answer some basic questions I had.  They kept talking about E coli, but exactly what did they find in the water?  How often do they sample our drinking water?  When asked about the cause of the high readings, they implied that they were either sampling errors or analysis errors.  What are the usual causes of E coli contamination?  They told us that re-sampling 24 hours later would tell us if we had a real problem.  They also said that hospitals had not reported any cases of gastrointestinal distress, the typical result of drinking water contamination.

That afternoon, the city announced the results of the second round of testing.  All samples had come back clean.  We didn’t have a problem.  Still, the boil water advisory remained in place.  The province required one more set of clean test results, 24 hours later, before they would lift the boil water order.  Like most people, I resigned myself to one more day of boiling water.  The next day, they told us what we had all been expecting:  tests were clean again.  The boil water order was lifted.

Our water comes from Shoal Lake in Ontario, through an aqueduct.  It is contained in a reservoir before being pumped into the water mains and water lines for the city.  It is chlorinated before entering the water mains.  That should be sufficient to kill any bacteria or other organisms in the water.  The pressure in the water mains is also a safety measure.  It should ensure that even with a leak, clean water will leak out but dirty water won’t leak into the water mains.  The city does sampling of water from domestic water lines once a week, receiving test results the next day.  Until a few days ago, they have never had enough high results to issue a city wide boil water order.

Apparently, what they found in the water this time was extremely low levels of coliform bacteria.  This is a class of bacteria that includes E coli.  These bacteria are usually not dangerous.  In fact, they are a normal component of everybody’s colon bacteria, and are always present in human waste and sewage.  There’s also a rare strain of E coli that has several numbers and letters after the name.  This one is often present in agricultural waste, and is dangerous.

Coliform bacteria in drinking water is an indicator that the water has been contaminated with sewage.  It’s not dangerous in itself, but dangerous bacteria or viruses may accompany the E coli.  It’s fairly easy for water wells to become contaminated, either through seepage or flooding.  That’s what happened in the notorious London pump incident of 1854.  It’s almost impossible for a pressurized water distribution system like ours to become contaminated.

I was quite alarmed when the city first announced this boil water order.  Once I got more information, and once I thought about it a bit, I was convinced that it had to be a false alarm.  I suspect that most people in the city thought the same thing.  Still, everybody respected the order and followed the instructions, at least for the first day.  Restaurants served coffee or tea, but no glasses of water.  It did turn out to be a false alarm.  Now we are all waiting to find out how such a thing could have happened to us.


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