Water, water everywhere

December 10, 1993

The water emergency in Washington is precautionary, so far. It is also a cautionary tale of what awaits when the developed world becomes complacent about public health. Nature exacts its revenge in countless ways, mass diarrhea being but one.

Years before the breakup of the Soviet Union, word was out in medical circles that the Leningrad water supply was not safe. It was an omen. Now, when one million residents of the District of Columbia and Virginia suburbs are advised to drink (or brush teeth with) no tap water that has not been boiled, diplomats and hardy travelers are saying, "Welcome to the Third World, this is how we live."

What happened was that two weekends of record deluge sent groundwater likely to contain animal excretions into the Potomac intakes or Dalecarlia reservoir so that water at the Dalecarlia treatment plant in the District of Columbia looked cloudy. That's all. No one got sick that we know of. The catch is that this turbidity has, at other times, preceded contamination of water supply by cryptosporidia or other dread micro-organisms.

This happened and was ignored in Milwaukee last April, before the outbreak of cryptosporidiosis gave diarrhea or flu symptoms to hundreds of thousands of Milwaukeans and death to 47, followed by orders to boil the water for eight days before the water was safe. That was the largest recorded outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in the industrialized world, and it wasn't just anywhere; it was Milwaukee, famed for pure water, home of the nation's beer supply. If Milwaukee is not safe . . . ?

Washington is not Anytown, U.S.A., either. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runs the water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency is a local outfit. So is every environmental watchdog and think tank and whistle-blower going. Only in October the Natural Resources Defense Council warned direly that EPA is lax in enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

So, when the Army Engineers spotted turbidity at Dalecarlia, it told the EPA straight-off, and the EPA told the Pentagon to shut down all 691 drinking fountains and told one million Washingtonians and Virginians to boil their water. No one waited to see if there would be an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis before blowing a whistle. The nation could not afford that. Thanks to the alarm, the worst possible scenario was avoided.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that about 100 water systems serving 21 million Americans do not filter adequately. It is time to heed that warning. Would anyone prefer the Milwaukee syndrome?

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