Article courtesy of Tyrone Beason | September 27, 2014 | The Seattle Times | Shared as educational material
The discovery of E. coli bacteria in Mercer Island’s tap water may force schools on the island to close Monday, the Mercer Island School District said.
Inspectors first detected the potentially sickening bacteria on Saturday after collecting water samples during a routine safety check, prompting an island-wide advisory urging residents to boil their drinking water or use bottled water until further notice. As a precaution, restaurants, cafes and delis on the island have been ordered closed until officials give the all-clear to reopen.
Results from safety tests on additional water samples are due Sunday, but a city of Mercer Island spokesman said the advisory would remain in effect at least another day because investigators planned to go out Sunday morning to collect further water samples to confirm whatever new findings they get from Saturday’s sample.
Only after results of Sunday’s round of tests come back will officials decide whether its safe to lift the advisory, state Department of Health spokesman Marqise Allen said. That won’t be until early in the week, perhaps as soon as Monday, he said.
In the meantime, the Mercer Island School District has issued a warning to parents that it is considering closing schools on Monday as officials await word about whether the water is safe in this island community of about 23,000 people.
Dozens of businesses affected by the close-order are also in a holding pattern.
There were no reports of illness leading up to the announcement, the city said.
The advisory recommends that boiled or purchased water be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and food preparation.
Tap water is still safe for bathing, according to the advisory.
E. coli can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headache or other symptoms. It may be especially harmful to babies, young children, some seniors and people with severely compromised immune systems.
The bacteria was detected in four of six water samples collected around the island, so it appears that the problem is not confined to any one area.
It’s not clear how severe the contamination is, but the initial test results were worrisome enough to warrant the alert.
Mercer Island buys its water from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU).
SPU, which gets its water from the Cedar River and the South Fork of the Tolt River, said it is inspecting system facilities, flushing water mains in possible problem areas on the island and making sure chlorine levels are adequate.
Water is delivered to the island through a 16-inch pipe that runs from the Eastside over Mercer Slough and along the Interstate 90 bridge, but no signs of E. coli have been found in the utility’s water system outside of Mercer Island, said SPU spokesman Andy Ryan.
“We are very confident that the E. coli originated on Mercer Island and is contained on Mercer Island,” he said. “In other words, it can’t get back to the rest of our system.”
Terry Smith, Mercer Island’s utilities operation manager, said investigators may never find out what caused the problem.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly how E. coli got into the system,” he said.
SPU provides drinking water to about 1.3 million customers. Ryan said it’s unusual, in his experience, for an entire community served by the utility to need to issue a boil-water advisory.
But they are not unheard of in general. In May, 670,000 water customers in Portland were asked to boil drinking water due to evidence of E. coli and other coliform bacteria, indicators of fecal contamination. That alert lasted 24 hours.