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Salmonella Tainted Water System Flushed, but Water Still Not Drinkable in Colorado Town

Apr 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Though the flushing of salmonella from Alamosa, Colorado's water system has reached the next stage, life has yet to return to normal in the small town.  Although some residents in northern Alamosa can use tap water for brief showers, since March 19th, residents have been unable to use tap water for brushing teeth, washing dishes, drinking, and cooking and crews are flushing the water system to purge salmonella bacteria.

But the situation has improved since last week,  when there was not much the residents of Alamosa, Colorado could do in the way of water other than flushing their toilets since the municipal water system was off-limits for every other use.  Schools and restaurants were closed and the National Guard was handing out bottled water.  It remains unclear how long it will be before residents will have to wait to drink water from their taps.  "We don't know how to answer that just yet because there's so many things that have to happen with the testing that's being done," Mayor Farris Bervig said.

The chlorination treatment to purge Alamosa’s pipes of salmonella moved into Stage 2  this weekend with lower chlorine levels that allowed most adults to take brief showers.  The ban on drinking, cooking, or brushing teeth with tap water will remain in place until the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment signs off on the testing being done on the water system.  Tests will look for salmonella and heavy metals such as zinc, lead, and copper, said Greg Rajnowski, who's involved in public health and operations planning for state officials leading the response to the outbreak.  There is a five-day turnaround between the samples' arrival at the lab and final test results, Rajnowski said, adding that crews are working to lower chlorine levels so testing may proceed.  City work crews are pulling water in to dilute chlorine levels as high as 25 milligrams per liter during Stage 1.  When Alamosa is able to drink tap water, the chlorine level will be close to two milligrams per liter, Bervig said.

Since the first case was reported on March 12, there have 326 illnesses, 13 hospitalizations, and no deaths. It is not known how the water became contaminated and, to date and about 10,000 people are affected by the contamination.  During Stage 2, residents must avoid city water for drinking, bathing infants or senior citizens, cleaning cuts or sores, preparing food and baby formula, brushing teeth or cleaning dentures, drinking water for pets, watering plants, running dishwashers, and washing clothes.  Alamosa is advising citizens not to dump any chemicals down any drains.

People infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps within 12 to 72 hours of infection.  Laboratory testing is required to determine the presence of Salmonella; additional testing can determine the specific type and which antibiotics are needed.  Generally, the illness lasts a week and most recover without treatment, but the elderly, infants, and people with impaired immune systems may require treatment and—in some—hospitalization is required because the infection may have spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites.  Severe cases can result in death if not treated.  Waterborne salmonella outbreaks are fairly rare, said Mark Salley, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.


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