With Utah officials investigating an apparent outbreak of campylobacter linked to public drinking water, this week marks the 10 year anniversary of the Walkerton E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The outbreak, the largest outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in North American history, began unfolding in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada in May, 2000. CBC news provided this at times chilling timeline – detailing the failures of public water officials to notify the public of contamination in the water system. The contamination of the public drinking water eventually led to 2,300 illnesses and 7 deaths.
According to CBC, illnesses were first reported on May 17, 2000. Public utilities officials had confirmation of E. coli contamination in the water on May 18, but took no action. In fact, when health agencies began investigating and looking for a cause of the outbreak, the public utilities commission (PUC) assured investigators that the water was safe. Five days after the positive sample was drawn, 40 people had been reported ill, and the PUC was assuring the public that the water was safe.
Thankfully, health officials took matter into their own hands, and conducted independent tests of the water that return positive. When confronted, PUC finally admitted the positive result, and conceded that chlorination equipment had not been working for some time.
Health officials at that point warned residents not to drink the water. It was too late. The first four deaths, 3 adults and a baby, were reported. Civil and criminal investigations ensued. Evidence was presented that sampling as far back as January had showed evidence of coliform bacteria in the water, an indicator of contamination and the possibility of the presence of E. coli.
PUC manager Stan Kobel was eventually sentenced to a year in prison. His brother Frank, ex-foreman at PUC, received nine months of house arrest. Ontario Superior Court Judge Bruce Durno stressed that “there was never any intent on the part of the Koebels to harm anyone” but found them “negligent in discharging their duties.”
Hopefully the painful lessons of the Walkerton outbreak will spur officials to full and immediate disclosure in any future outbreaks.