Ontario E Coli spreading to other towns

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Friday, May. 26, 2000

Town buries E. coli victims Still grapples with anger

By JAMES MCCARTEN-- The Canadian Press

WALKERTON, Ont. (CP) -- One victim wasburied, Ontario's premier was on the ropes and residents remained furious Friday as this farm town continued to cope with the worst E. coli outbreak in Canada's history.

"Are you going to put changes into effect so this type of tragedy never has to happen again?" Veronica Davidson shrieked at Premier Mike Harris as he arrived to discuss the crisis with town officials.

Five people have died and as many as 1,000 more have fallen ill since the town's water supply became contaminated with deadly E. coli bacteria after a violent May 12 storm.

Townspeople have been enraged since learning the community's Public Utilities Commission knew E. coli was in the water for more than a week but failed to alert residents.

Ontario Provincial Police were in town Friday investigating what went wrong in a trail that could end in criminal charges.

"A number of interviews have been conducted and documents are being collected," said Supt. Richard Kotwa.

"Investigators have met with coroner officials and the medical officer of health."

Murray McQuigge, the area's medical officer of health, said in nearby Owen Sound that there's no end in sight -- many are still sick and he said he expected the death toll to climb.

Other cases of E. coli infection were being reported Friday in cities throughout southwestern Ontario, including Windsor, London and Kitchener. Officials believe those cases stemmed from the Walkerton outbreak.

"The day's not over yet, this epidemic's not over yet," McQuigge said.

Now known as the whistle-blower in the town's E. coli crisis, McQuigge said he didn't regret ratting out the commission's employees for failing to alert residents.

"How difficult was it? I had a little cry afterward but I also knew the public had to know."

Dave Thomson, mayor of the community, said he'd spoken to Stan Koebel, the man at the centre of the storm who stands accused of knowing about the contamination more than a week ago but failing to tell anyone.

"Mr. Koebel feels extremely bad, is very sorry that he hadn't taken more prompt action," Thomson said. "They did feel at that time that by flushing the system and by adding more chlorine, it would have cleared the system up."

Schools remained closed indefinitely Friday as many residents continued to watch loved ones suffer from the E. coli infection -- which causes diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and fever -- or battled it themselves.

Lenore Al, 66, a librarian who'd just retired with her husband, was the first to be buried today after a sombre ceremony at the town's Sacred Heart Church.

"They were going to enjoy life together," said Beulah Turnbull, 64, Al's friend for 20 years. "She was an all around nice person. She will certainly be in God's garden."

Another child was airlifted Friday morning from Walkerton to London, Ont. Four children at the same hospital are in critical condition on dialysis and seven others are on the hospital's pediatric ward.

Dr. Douglas Matsell, the pediatric kidney expert at the London Health Sciences Centre, said he expects two children to be released from hospital within the next few days.

He also noted that the condition of the more recent admissions have not been as severe.

"We consider that an optimistic sign," he said at a news conference.

A class-action lawyer has been retained by town residents affected by the outbreak. An inquest will also be held into the public-health disaster.

"Somebody should have known beforehand," said Ron Mattice, whose eight-year-old grandson is ill with the infection.

"The public should have known. I'm angry they didn't let us know. People are furious."

Town residents were planning a rally on Saturday and Sunday to protest Ontario government cutbacks they say are responsible for the E. coli crisis.

E. coli normally live in the intestines of humans and other warm-blooded animals, such as cattle. Most strains are harmless but some can be deadly. It can be transmitted by eating undercooked meat from a contaminated cow, or by drinking unpasteurized milk or apple juice.

The E. coli bacteria produces toxins, that, in severe cases, lead to kidney failure.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), May 26, 2000


temporary link

Sat May 27, 11:12 pm

Walkerton water trouble may go back months

A company that used to test Walkerton's water supply says there was evidence of a problem four months before the deadliest E. coli outbreak in Canadian history.

The president of GAP EnviroMicrobial Services, Garry Palmateer, says that a test done in January turned up evidence of coliform  an indication that surface water was seeping into the well water.

Palmateer says that subsequent tests showed coliform. He says his company notified the Ministry of Environment about the problem five times.

His company got out of the water testing business at the beginning of this month, and therefore did not test for the E. coli that led to so many people getting sick in Walkerton.

For days, people in Walkerton have been demanding to know when officials suspected that there was something wrong with the water in their community, about 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

The local medical health office has accused the Public Utility Commission of not passing on lab results that confirmed the water was contaminated with E. coli.

Crews have been flushing and disinfecting the town's water system in an attempt to purge the area of the bacteria. It could be at least another week before tap water in Walkerton is declared safe to drink again.

People now ill in cities

There's word the outbreak is affecting people in some other areas of Ontario.

Authorities suspect people getting sick in Windsor, London and Kitchener passed through the Walkerton area recently, drank the water and then returned home.

The medical officer for the Hamilton-Wentworth region is not taking any chances. People in the small town of Freelton have been ordered to boil water after E. coli bacteria was found in pipes.

The Walkerton crisis is a concern outside of Ontario. People from the United States who visited the town recently have been calling the Hartley House Hotel, asking if they were served tap water during their stay. They were.

Police are now investigating the crisis. The outbreak is believed to be the deadliest of its kind in Canadian history.

Five people have died in Walkerton, and 12 residents  mainly young children  remain in hospital in serious or critical condition.

Hundreds of people are ill with severe cramps, fever, nausea, and bloody diarrhea.

Officials aren't sure how the outbreak started. There was extensive flooding in the area during a heavy rainstorm nearly two weeks ago. It's possible that sewage, or manure from farmers' fields, leaked into the wells that supply water to the area.

E. coli is fatal in about three per cent of cases. It causes kidney damage in 10 per cent of people who become infected.

(end of article)

Palmateer also said in a CBC tv interview on Friday night that the coliforms his company found indicated possible mechanical problems at the wellheads of two of the town's seven wells.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), May 28, 2000.

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