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Probe Underway of E. Coli-Tainted Water at UConn

Sep 5, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

It seems as if E. coli contamination is turning up everywhere.  Now, E. coli has been found in water supplied to off-campus housing at the University of Connecticut.  State and local health inspectors are investigating the well and water distribution system to determine how the potentially deadly bacteria contaminated the water supply at UConn’s popular Willington Oaks Apartments, according to Robert Miller, Eastern Highlands Health District director.  Finding E. coli bacteria in the water confirms that the water was recently contaminated with human or animal feces.

The E. coli contamination was discovered during a routine test of the Willington Oaks Apartments well.  The water system was since disinfected with chlorine and the well water is scheduled for retesting today, according to officials.  The nearly 200 tenants who live in the complex were notified of the problem and advised not to drink the water unless it is boiled for a full minute.  Also, the management group—New England Realty Management Group—has delivered bottled water to the residents and is maintaining a tanker truck with water for tenant use.  The New England Water Utility Service, a subsidiary of the Connecticut Water Co., operates the water system.   Willington Oaks is an ING property.

William Gerrish, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said he it remains uncertain how long tenants will be without drinking water.  "We want to make sure the sample results indicate the water quality is clean and clear and safe to drink," he said.  In the meantime, tenants have been advised to dispose of old ice cubes and to use bottled water to wash dishes, sanitize surfaces, and brush their teeth, Miller said, adding that tenants can shower as long as they do not swallow any water when showering.

Director of off-campus student services Jim Hintz said he contacted New England Realty to find out what steps it is taking to address the contamination and says angry students have been contacting him.  "They are clearly upset about this and they feel it's a major inconvenience for them," Hintz said. "They've been directed to speak to the management company to get the issues resolved if they are talking about rent reimbursements and that kind of thing.”

E. coli are a group of bacteria normally found in animal intestines and feces.  Some strains are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, even deadly.  Among those E. coli that may cause serious disease and death are a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC); E. coli O111 and Strain O157:H7 are in this group of virulent, potentially deadly strains.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently identified the extremely rare and toxin-producing strain of E. coli—E. coli O111—in stool samples taken from victims of the ongoing Oklahoma outbreak. Strain O157:H7 can cause blood poisoning, cystitis, septicemia, and death. In outbreaks involving E. Coli, the deadly strain O157:H7 is generally always the culprit.

In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness with about 73,000 people becoming infected and 61 people dying from E. coli each year.  Last year alone, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.  In Canada, strain O157:H7 killed seven people and sickened 2,300 in Walkerton, Ontario in a tainted-water scandal.

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