Safe Drinking Water

Safe Drinking Water, Lessons from Recent Outbreaks in Affluent Nations by Steve E. Hrudey and Elizabeth J. Hrudey Iwa Publishing, 486 pp.

Safe Drinking WaterContaminated drinking water killed and sickened people in affluent communities long before anyone heard of Walkerton’s Koebel brothers. University of Alberta water scientist Steve Hrudey says waterborne outbreaks will persist in wealthy societies long after the brothers are forgotten – unless the underlying problems of complacency, neglect, accumulating errors, bad judgment and poor practice in water treatment plants are properly dealt with.

Hrudey, who worked on the research advisory panel to the Walkerton Inquiry and collaborated with the Canadian Water Network on the issue, said, “Far too many people seemed prepared to write off Walkerton as being only the misdeeds of the Koebel brothers. If you draw all the attention to a few blunders, ignoring the bigger picture about why waterborne outbreaks have persisted, you aren’t going to get the right people to take ownership of the problem.”

Hrudey and his wife, Elizabeth, a former microbiology technologist, are campaigning to make water professionals and the public aware of the root causes of contaminated drinking water. Their recently published book, Safe Drinking Water: Lessons from Recent Outbreaks in Affluent Nations, documents 70 outbreaks of pathogen-infected drinking water in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

More … one of Safe Drinking Water’s studies, a Cryptosporidium outbreak that affected 6,000 people in Saskatchewan, is a classic example of how things go wrong. North Battleford’s sewage outfall was upstream of the water intake. The city had been recycling diluted sewage into their drinking water for decades. “The inevitable happened in April, 2001,” said Hrudey. “That was 11 months after the Walkerton outbreak. Despite all the water-related publicity, North Battleford had continued on with the unshakable belief that ‘it can’t happen here.’ “During the judicial inquiry into their outbreak, North Battleford argued there was no evidence the location of the sewage outfall contributed to the outbreak while acknowledging that the sewage effluent had high concentrations of Cryptosporidium. That’s bizarre.

“The city had even told one water plant operator his services were no longer required after he contacted the media (Goldhawk) to expose workplace safety and water quality problems being ignored. You had operators trying to do their job and managers who didn’t want to know about any problems.

“Justice Robert Laing laid the blame on the city’s collective lack of knowledge on what it takes to produce safe drinking water and policies that discouraged the possibility of acquiring that knowledge.”

Hrudey and his wife are touring to promote the use of the new book by water professionals around the world. It has already sold in 25 countries. In a cafeteria at the Toronto International Airport, at the end of a short visit to Toronto between trips to Australia, Hrudey took a copy of the $168 International Water Association publication out of his briefcase. A touching photo of a blonde toddler drinking from a big water glass adorns Safe Drinking Water’s aqua-blue cover. Hrudey watched the reporter’s expression change as the realization grew that this could be a heartbreaking portrayal of a fatal poisoning – the very young are among the most likely to die from pathogen-infected water. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Hrudey. “Being able to let your children drink tap water without fear of them getting sick or dying. That’s a remarkable benefit of living in the developed world, ranking right up there with secure housing, safe food, and clean air.”

Hrudey points out that that Canada has an average of 10 waterborne outbreaks annually and that British Columbia had more than 300 boil water advisories active in 2001, making it clear that the book’s 70 cases are only a small sample of a widespread problem. “The developed world (can) use a comprehensive study showing that when a water system fails, it’s usually for the same reasons that we had problems not only in Walkerton, but also in North Battleford and hundreds of other communities – people simply are not doing what we know needs to be done,” said Hrudey.

“Problems generally occur in smaller communities that lack the technical support and the commitment to provide safe drinking water, even when they have enough money to do the job. The other side of the coin is that our work is reassurance for the vast majority of Canadians that their drinking water is remarkably safe.” When people get sick from drinking tap water, microbes, not chemicals, are usually the cause.

Hrudey said, “Microbes are very small particles. The key features of water treatment are to remove particles and to ensure that any infectious particles that you haven’t removed are inactivated or killed with chlorine or by some other disinfectant.” In their case studies, the Hrudeys have documented countless ways that a few people have contributed to screw ups in that basic two-step process:

  • Water plant operators ignore experience showing the hazards of shallow wells in agricultural areas or near septic tank disposal fields.
  • Warnings that chlorine-resistant microbes like Cryptosporidium are causing problems go unheeded.
  • Training programs teach water plant operators to turn valves but fail to create understanding of health risks.
  • Cities put their water intake downstream of their sewage outflow.
  • Water plant operators habitually under-dose chlorine without ever checking to see if they’re using enough chlorine to kill all the pathogens.
  • New regulations are passed for small water suppliers without providing support for implementing new practices.
  • Water plant operators whose mistakes can sicken the entire community are not considered public health personnel; they are sometimes the same civic employee who collects the garbage and sweeps the streets.
  • “Grandparenting” practices have given certification to water system operators without training them or requiring them to demonstrate their competence.

The list of failures goes on until you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And faulty water systems can go on operating for long periods before they cause a catastrophe – the threat to Walkerton’s water supply was identified 22 years before the disaster in May 2000.

“Some utilities will continue making mistakes and using bad practices for years, sometime decades, with no obvious consequences,” Hrudey said. “Then something happens. It might be a modification of the system, repairs to the plant, a new manure storage facility in the area, a heavy rainfall, a new microbe . . . . Then everything lines up and you have a waterborne disaster.”

“The history is now clear,” Hrudey said. “The theme of Safe Drinking Water is converting hindsight into foresight. There’s no shortage of hindsight available. The challenge is to try to convert it to foresight.”

One of the obvious challenges is to get all water systems, big and small, up to best practice. “The ideal way to get every system up to standard is to get the experts in the big systems that you find in places like Toronto and Edmonton to help the people running the smaller systems,” said Hrudey. “You can put new regulations in place, but that isn’t much good if you don’t provide the water expertise that allows people to meet those standards. It’s all about competence, and the wellspring of competence is people who know what they are doing, not regulations enforced by government officials. “If I had to put my investment in one single thing, it would be in having operators who are informed about what hazards pose a risk to the water supply, what the capabilities of the treatment system are for dealing with these and when they need to call for help if they can’t manage problems themselves.”

Hrudey also wants to see water standards transformed. “For too many people in the business, water standards are only a table of numbers. Monitoring results usually come back from the lab after people have consumed the water,” he said. “Verifying how you made people sick is fine for research or for assigning liability – but it does not protect public health. “What protects public health is how you operate the system. Water treatment processes are designed to achieve certain things. By looking at fine particle removal and chlorine residuals, you can monitor the system in real time to ensure the processes are working properly. “There is a short list of things you can control in your process. But there is a whole range of things you can do for prevention, including making sure you know where the potential threats are: Where is the manure being stored? What happens during heavy rainfall? Who’s doing what upstream of my water intake? “And when consumers are calling in with complaints, you have to be able to respond to them.

Complaints can alert you to potential public health problems.” To illustrate his last point, Hrudey referred to three graphs in Safe Drinking Water’s section on a Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee WI in 1993, a time before Cryptosporidium was widely recognized as a water-borne threat. The outbreak was huge, affecting 400,000 people and eventually causing up to 70 deaths. The graphs showed that a full week before diarrhea outbreaks alerted public health officials to the water problems, there were clear indications that something was going wrong. Water turbidity (caused by fine particles) had spiked and customer complaints had soared. Guidelines that recognized the importance of real-time particle removal and consumer complaints might have led to an earlier reaction and fewer deaths in Milwaukee.

Safe Drinking Water’s is selling strongly in Australia, with one water utility ordering 55 copies to ensure that many employees have a chance to read it. On one of earth’s driest continents, where people are already using recycled water and one major city is adopting desalinated sea water as a water source, drinking water is highly valued. The abundance of water in North America has created different attitudes. Hrudey said, “Canadians think water should be free or cheap. Because we have become used to water being a huge bargain, and because our utilities have been able to deliver safe water at a very low price, we’ve become complacent. We’ve allowed our systems to be less protective than they could be or should be.”

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