Cape Coral officials knew drinking water was susceptible to E. coli days before informing residents
E. coli was discovered in testing before the public was alerted to the pathogen in drinking water on the evening of Sept. 12. when a mandatory boil water alert was issued.
Cape Coral officials knew a sample from the city's drinking water system tested positive for a marker for E. coli four days before informing the city’s 200,000 residents and issuing a mandatory boil water notice.
E. coli was discovered in subsequent testing, and the public was alerted to the pathogen in drinking water on the evening of Sept. 12. A mandatory boil water alert was issued.
Residents swarmed supermarkets, clearing the shelves of bottled water, restaurants stopped serving certain items made with tap water, and Lee County Public Schools said students would be given bottled water and water fountains were shut off.
Escherichia coli is a bacteria found in the environment, certain foods and the intestines of people and animals. The germs kill about 100 people every year nationwide, but, more commonly, people infected with the pathogen become ill and can have bloody diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and headaches.
Cape Coral City Manager Rob Hernandez said in a press conference Monday that word of possible E. coli in the drinking water was not disseminated because the first positive test on Sept. 7 found total coliform. That is a bacteria that indicates E. coli might be present, but the test was not positive for E. coli itself.
Hernandez consistently downplayed the positive E. coli testing throughout the press conference, and said the city's hand was forced to issue the mandatory boil water alert by Lee County's office of the Florida Department of Health.
“We had some concerns about the validity of one of the tests,” Hernandez said in a press conference Monday night about the positive E. coli tests and the citywide boil water alert.
“However, the Lee County Health Department instructed us that because we received two positive tests that they were going to require us to institute a mandatory boil water notice for all customers, all residents and business, receiving water through the city’s water system.
“I have no information right now to indicate that there is a problem of any kind with the quality and safety with the city of Cape Coral’s water treatment system.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the presence of total coliform bacteria in tapwater is a serious matter, and repeat sampling must be done within 24 hours of the initial test results.
That’s because the CDC says the presence of total coliform in a drinking water systems “suggests that there could be a problem with existing equipment or treatment systems, contamination of the source water or a breach in the distribution system that could introduce E. coli contamination.”
If several days from the finding of total coliform and the announcement of the E. coli and the boil water advisory in Cape Coral was excessive, the opposite is true for the 18 hours from when the boil water advisory was issued to when it was cancelled and the all-clear was given.
The Florida Department of Health says boil water advisories due to dangerous microbes like E. coli in drinking water last at least one day.
“A boil water event typically lasts 24 to 48 hours, but it can be longer and may last several days,” the department says on its website. “How long depends on what caused the need to boil, how quickly the problem can be corrected, and how long it takes for laboratory results to confirm your water is again ready to drink.”
Florida law gives the state health department decision-making power for what rules are to be followed when boil water advisories must be issued, what information must be in the notices, and when they can be rescinded.
In Cape Coral, the presence of E. coli in the drinking water and the boil water advisory was announced at 5 p.m. Monday and the boil water advisory was rescinded at about noon Tuesday.
The health department guidelines say water samples must be free of pathogens for “one day” before an advisory can be lifted, but does not define whether “one day” means 24 hours or one calendar day turning to the next. WGCU contacted the state health department’s drinking water program twice for clarification but did not receive a reply.
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