15th ANNIVERSARY OF WATER CRISIS

  • Dr. Ian Gilson and nurse Mary Busalacchi treated several of the AIDS patients who died during the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee. (Photo by Erin Toner)

Fifteen years ago, 400,000
people got sick and more than 100 died
from contaminated drinking water. It’s
still the biggest outbreak of waterborne
disease ever in the United States. It
happened because a parasite got into the
water supply in Milwaukee. Since then,
there have been major changes in water
systems across the nation. Erin Toner
reports:

Transcript

Fifteen years ago, 400,000
people got sick and more than 100 died
from contaminated drinking water. It’s
still the biggest outbreak of waterborne
disease ever in the United States. It
happened because a parasite got into the
water supply in Milwaukee. Since then,
there have been major changes in water
systems across the nation. Erin Toner
reports:

Dr. Ian Gilson has been treating AIDS patients for 25 years. He says in all that time,
nothing’s been as bad as 1993 when Milwaukee’s drinking water was contaminated with
a parasite called cryptosporidium.

“We began to get reports of some of our patients having diarrhea that didn’t stop and we
had patients with weird stuff like an ulcer that was not related to acid, severe gall bladder
disease without stones. Ultimately by the time it was called a waterborne epidemic we
knew we had a big problem on our hands.”

Healthy people who drank the water, or brushed their teeth with it, or ate food that was
washed in it, had severe vomiting and diarrhea. But people with weak immune systems,
like those HIV with AIDS, couldn’t fight the parasite. And there weren’t good AIDS
drugs back then, so the patients just deteriorated.

“I distinctly remember several patients saying if you can’t get me over this let’s just be
done with this. One guy who was suffering terribly, we couldn’t seem to get him enough
morphine. And I ordered what I thought was a fatal dose of morphine because I thought
that was the only thing that was going to help him. And it actually relieved his pain.”

When it was all over, cryptosporidium killed 103 people with HIV and AIDS. Even after
15 years, the source of the parasite is still a mystery.

“The cause is not known and may never be known. There does not seem to be any
obvious explanation.”

Carrie Lewis is superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works. She says at the time of the
outbreak, the city pumped in water through an intake pipe about a mile off shore in Lake
Michigan.

The prevailing theory is that sewage overflows contaminated water in the bay, and that
the water was pushed toward the intake pipe and entered the treatment plant.

Lewis doesn’t buy it.

She says if human sewage was the source, people would have had to be sick to excrete
the parasite, and there’s no evidence of that. Some also speculate that cow manure
contaminated area rivers, but Lewis says regular testing in the watershed rarely finds
traces of cryptosporidium.

Lewis says she has no clue what happened, and she’s OK with that. She says what’s
important is what’s changed since then. Lewis says water testing at the time of the
outbreak amounted to taking a couple of samples a day – and that was considered good.

“Today we have hundreds of instruments testing the water every single second for all
sorts of different parameters, so the 15 years that’s gone by it’s a lifetime.”

The cryptosporidium outbreak so damaged Milwaukee’s psyche that people were willing
to do just about anything to make the water safe again. The city spent $90 million to
extend the intake pipe farther out in Lake Michigan. The filters at purification plants were
updated. And now the water is treated with ozone, which kills cryptosporidium.

What happened in Milwaukee caused changes around the country.

New federal regulations required water systems to test for the parasite and safeguard
against it. A drug was licensed to treat the disease.

Michael Beach is associate director for healthy water at the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. He says today people should have a lot of confidence when they turn on
their tap.

“Those types of outbreaks have virtually disappeared from the tracking system.”

Many water experts say municipal drinking water in this country is now the safest in the
world. They say the legacy of the Milwaukee outbreak is that water utilities are no longer
just managing a system of pipes and water mains – they’re in the business of protecting
public health.

For The Environment Report, I’m Erin Toner.

Related Links

Factory Farms – Water Pollution

  • Hog manure being injected into the ground and tilled under. The manure fertilizes the crops, but if too much is applied it can foul up waterways. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Transcript

(sound of giant fans)


About a thousand cows are in this building, eating, lolling around, and waiting for the next round of milking.


There’s a sharp smell of manure hanging in the air. Big fans are blowing to keep the cows cool, and to keep the air circulated.


Stephan Vander Hoff runs this dairy along with his siblings. He says these big farms are good for consumers:


“We’ve got something here and we’ve been able to do it in such a way that we’re still producing at the same cost that we were fifteen years ago. It costs more now for a gallon of gas than a gallon of milk. And so, that’s something to be proud of.”


Vander Hoff’s dairy produces enough milk to fill seven tanker trucks everyday. They also produce a lot of waste. The cows in this building are penned in by metal gates. They can’t go outside. So the manure and urine that would normally pile up is washed away by water.


Tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater are sent to big lagoons outside. Eventually, the liquefied manure is spread onto nearby farm fields. It’s a challenge for these farmers to deal with these large pools of liquid manure. The farther they have to haul it, the more expensive it is for them. Almost all of them put the manure onto farm fields.


It’s good for the crops if it’s done right, but if too much manure is put on the land, it can wash into streams and creeks. In fact, this dairy has been cited by the state of Michigan for letting their manure get into nearby waterways.


(sound of roadway)


Lynn Henning keeps a close eye on Vander Hoff’s dairy.


(car door opening and closing)


She steps from her car with a digital camera, and a device that measures water quality.


(sound of crickets and walking through the brush)


She weaves her way down to the edge of this creek.


“This is the area where we got E. coli at 7.5 million.”


High E. coli levels mean the water might be polluted with dangerous pathogens. Lynn Henning is testing the creek today because she saw farmers spreading liquid manure on the fields yesterday. Henning is a farmer turned environmental activist. She works for the Sierra Club and drives all over the state taking water samples and pictures near big livestock farms.


Henning says she got involved because more of these large animal farms expanded into her community. She says when the farmers spread the liquid manure, it can make life in the country pretty difficult:


“The odor is horrendous when they’re applying –we have fly infestations–we have hydrogen sulfide in the air that nobody knows is there because you can’t always smell it. We have to live in fear that every glass of water that we drink is going to be contaminated at some point.”


Water contamination from manure is a big concern. The liquid manure can contain nasty pathogens and bacteria.


Joan Rose is a microbiologist at Michigan State University.


“If animal wastes are not treated properly and we have large concentrations of animal waste going onto land and then via rainfall or other runoff events entering into our water – there can be outbreaks associated with this practice.”


Rose tested water in this area and found high levels of cryptosporidium that likely came from cattle. Cryptosporidium is the same bug that killed people in Milwaukee back in 1993. Rose says livestock farmers need to think more about keeping these pathogens out of the water. But she says they don’t get much support from the state and researchers on how best to do that.


For now, the farmers have to come up with their own solutions.


(sound of treatment plant)


Three years ago, the state of Michigan sued Stephen Vander Hoff’s dairy for multiple waste violations. The Vander Hoff’s settled the case with the state and agreed to build a one million dollar treatment system. But Vander Hoff isn’t convinced that his dairy was at fault, and thinks that people’s concerns over his dairy are overblown:


“If we had an issue or had done something wrong the first people that want to correct it is us. We live in this area. So why would we do anything to harm it?”


Vander Hoff is upbeat about the new treatment system. He says it will save the dairy money in the long run.


The Sierra Club’s Lynn Henning says she’s skeptical of the new treatment plant. She’ll continue to take water samples and put pressure on these farms to handle their manure better. In the end, she doesn’t think these big farms have a place in agriculture. She’d rather see farms go back to the old style of dairying, where the cows are allowed to graze, and the number of animals isn’t so concentrated.


But farm researchers say because consumers demand cheap prices, these large farms are here to stay and there will be more of them. Because of this, the experts say we can expect more conflicts in rural America.


For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Too Much Manure?

  • Hog manure being injected into the ground and tilled under. The manure fertilizes the crops, but if too much is applied it can foul up waterways. (photo by Mark Brush)

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland.
Dairy farms are getting bigger. Many keep thousands of cows in buildings the size of several football fields. These big dairy operations can make a lot of milk. That translates into cheaper prices at the grocery store.
But some worry these large farms are polluting the land around them. In the fourth story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush visits a big Midwestern dairy farm:

Transcript

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland. Dairy farms are getting bigger.
Many keep thousands of cows in buildings the size of several football fields. These big dairy
operations can make a lot of milk. That translates into cheaper prices at the grocery store. But
some worry these large farms are polluting the land around them. In the fourth story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush visits a big Midwestern dairy farm:


(sound of giant fans)


About a thousand cows are in this building, eating, lolling around, and waiting for the next round
of milking.


There’s a sharp smell of manure hanging in the air. Big fans are blowing to keep the cows cool,
and to keep the air circulated.


Stephan Vander Hoff runs this dairy along with his siblings. He says these big farms are good for
consumers:


“We’ve got something here and we’ve been able to do it in such a way that we’re still producing
at the same cost that we were fifteen years ago. It costs more now for a gallon of gas than a
gallon of milk. And so, that’s something to be proud of.”


Vander Hoff’s dairy produces enough milk to fill seven tanker trucks everyday. They also
produce a lot of waste. The cows in this building are penned in by metal gates. They can’t go
outside. So the manure and urine that would normally pile up is washed away by water.


Tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater are sent to big lagoons outside. Eventually, the
liquefied manure is spread onto nearby farm fields. It’s a challenge for these farmers to deal with
these large pools of liquid manure. The farther they have to haul it, the more expensive it is for
them. Almost all of them put the manure onto farm fields.


It’s good for the crops if it’s done right, but if too much manure is put on the land, it can wash into streams and creeks. In fact, this
dairy has been cited by the state of Michigan for letting their manure get into nearby waterways.


(sound of roadway)


Lynn Henning keeps a close eye on Vander Hoff’s dairy.


(car door opening and closing)


She steps from her car with a digital camera, and a device that measures water quality.


(sound of crickets and walking through the brush)


She weaves her way down to the edge of this creek.


“This is the area where we got E. coli at 7.5 million.”


High E. coli levels mean the water might be polluted with dangerous pathogens. Lynn Henning is
testing the creek today because she saw farmers spreading liquid manure on the fields yesterday.
Henning is a farmer turned environmental activist. She works for the Sierra Club and drives all
over the state taking water samples and pictures near big livestock farms.


Henning says she got involved because more of these large animal farms expanded into her
community. She says when the farmers spread the liquid manure, it can make life in the country
pretty difficult:


“The odor is horrendous when they’re applying –we have fly infestations–we have hydrogen
sulfide in the air that nobody knows is there because you can’t always smell it. We have to live
in fear that every glass of water that we drink is going to be contaminated at some point.”


Water contamination from manure is a big concern. The liquid manure can contain nasty
pathogens and bacteria.


Joan Rose is a microbiologist at Michigan State University.


“If animal wastes are not treated properly and we have large concentrations of animal waste
going onto land and then via rainfall or other runoff events entering into our water – there can
be outbreaks associated with this practice.”


Rose tested water in this area and found high levels of cryptosporidium that likely came from
cattle. Cryptosporidium is the same bug that killed people in Milwaukee back in 1993. Rose
says livestock farmers need to think more about keeping these pathogens out of the water. But
she says they don’t get much support from the state and researchers on how best to do that.


For now, the farmers have to come up with their own solutions.


(sound of treatment plant)


Three years ago, the state of Michigan sued Stephen Vander Hoff’s dairy for multiple waste
violations. The Vander Hoff’s settled the case with the state and agreed to build a one million
dollar treatment system. But Vander Hoff isn’t convinced that his dairy was at fault, and thinks
that people’s concerns over his dairy are overblown:


“If we had an issue or had done something wrong the first people that want to correct it is us. We
live in this area. So why would we do anything to harm it?”


Vander Hoff is upbeat about the new treatment system. He says it will save the dairy money in
the long run.


The Sierra Club’s Lynn Henning says she’s skeptical of the new treatment plant. She’ll continue
to take water samples and put pressure on these farms to handle their manure better. In the end,
she doesn’t think these big farms have a place in agriculture. She’d rather see farms go back to
the old style of dairying, where the cows are allowed to graze, and the number of animals isn’t
so concentrated.


But farm researchers say because consumers demand cheap prices, these large farms are here to
stay and there will be more of them. Because of this, the experts say we can expect more
conflicts in rural America.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Group to Sue Epa Over Beach Water Quality

An environmental group is planning to sue the government because it’s too slow to warn people about high levels of bacteria in the water. The environmental group says government standards for beach closings are outdated. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams reports:

Transcript

An environmental group is planning to sue the government because it’s
too slow to warn people about high levels of bacteria in the water.
The environmental group says government standards for beach closings
are outdated. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams reports:


The current beach water standards haven’t been revised for 20 years.
Some scientists and environmental groups say that’s endangering public
health.


Nancy Stoner is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her group
recently announced plans to sue the EPA for failing to protect
beachgoers from contaminated water. Stoner says the current standards
are based on outdated methods.


“They’re too slow. They tell people whether the water quality was good
24 or 48 hours before they’re in the water, not whether it’s good
today. And they focus on bacteria only, not on viruses, not on
parasites like cryptosporidium and giardia.”


Stoner says the EPA failed to meet a deadline for issuing revised
standards. An EPA spokesperson says the agency is in the process of
revising the standards based on the latest science.


For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Is Our Water Too Clean?

Diseases caused by contaminated water are common in the developing world, but they’re also making a comeback in the United States where the water might be too clean. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Charity Nebbe
explains:

Transcript

Diseases caused by contaminated water are common in the developing
world, but they’re also making a comeback in the United States where
the water might be too clean. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Charity Nebbe has more:


In 1993, the water-borne pathogen Cryptosporidium claimed 54 lives in
Milwaukee. Incidents of that magnitude are rare, but outbreaks of
water-borne pathogens are increasingly common.


Floyd Frost is an epidemiologist at Lovelace Respiratory Research
Institute in New Mexico and he believes the increase in disease is
linked to improvement in water purification technology. As evidence he
points to his research, published in The Journal of Infectious
Diseases, that shows lower incidence of disease in communities that
drink surface water…


“Perhaps the low dose exposures in surface water are immunizing
people so that they don’t get sick, whereas in the ground water it’s
relatively clean most of the time, but when contamination occurs people
get much sicker.”


Frost believes that to prevent future outbreaks water treatment
facilities need to focus on preventing plant failures rather than
improving purification.


For the GLRC, I’m Charity Nebbe.

Related Links

Preventing a Dangerous Microbe in Drinking Water

The EPA wants communities to do more to protect drinking water from a harmful microorganism. That could mean several changes for cities around the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

The EPA wants communities to do more to protect
drinking water from a harmful microorganism. That could mean
several changes for cities around the Great Lakes. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:


Ten years ago, a Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee led to
the deaths of more than 100 people who had weakened immune
systems. The outbreak sickened 400,000 other people.


Since that time, Milwaukee has made 100 million dollars in water treatment plant
improvements. Milwaukee waterworks superintendent Carrie Lewis
says the EPA’s plan to make all drinking water treatment
systems monitor and guard against the microbe means some
cities face new construction at their water treatment buildings.


“Because one doesn’t easily add more barriers to
organisms like Cryptosporidium without adding more physical plant
to the water treatment plants.”


Lewis expects some cities to debate the cost and benefits of the
rule package.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Chuck
Quirmbach reporting.

Related Links