Janesville water test leads to boil-water alert

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Saturday, May 9, 2009
— Grocery stores reported a rush on bottled water Friday after the city of Janesville issued a boil-water advisory for about a third of the city.

The city had found E. coli bacteria in a routine test of the city’s water. It was the first time E. coli had been found in city water in about 30 years, said Dan Lynch, city utilities director.

E. coli comes from the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, and it’s a sign that dangerous fecal bacteria such as salmonella, giardia, hepatitis and other harmful organisms might be there as well, said Tim Banwell, environmental health officer for Rock County.

The fecal bacteria can cause short-term diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches or other symptoms, according to the city’s advisory. These bacteria may pose a special health risk for infants, young children, some of the elderly, and people with severely compromised immune systems.

The affected area contains about 24,000 residents, Banwell said. It included much of the north and east sides.

Daniels Sentry on East Milwaukee Street reported it ran out of bottled water Friday afternoon but that more was on the way. A spokesman for Woodman’s Food Market said supplies appeared to be sufficient.

The city flushed water mains and increased chlorine levels to fight the possible contamination. It also took new water samples, both at the site where the first positive test came from and at four other sites in the vicinity, Lynch said.

Tests take 24 hours, so Lynch said he would know whether an all-clear could be issued by sometime today.

“If you find more unsafe samples, you’ve got a bigger problem, usually,” Banwell said.

If the new samples also test positive for E. coli, the boil-water advisory would continue.

Lynch said it’s possible the water is fine but that the testing sample was somehow contaminated, or it could be something more serious.

“We don’t know how bad the water is. All we know is, E. coli is there,” Banwell said.

Lynch did not know where the contamination came from.

Often, the source of a contamination remains a mystery, Banwell said.

The last E. coli alert in Janesville, in the late 1970s, was traced to an animal that got into the city’s water reservoir, Lunch said.

City water is tested about 70 times a month at various locations around the city, Lynch said.

Lynch did not immediately know when the last time water was sampled at the affected site, so it’s not clear how long the contamination has been in the water system, but he said it could have been “several days.” The sample that tested positive was taken Thursday.

“As far as I know, this is the only sample that came out unsafe, and there were numerous other samples taken across the city at the same time,” Banwell said.

Banwell said his staff was calling restaurants, schools and grocery stores in the affected area Friday. Restaurants were required to dump any ice they made.

Grocery stores were being told to dump their produce if it was washed with city water. New produce could be washed only with bottled water, Banwell said.

Woodman’s doesn’t have misters, so that’s not an issue there, said Dave Thobe, shift manager.

Restaurants can use city water for washing dishes as long as they keep their sanitizer sink filled with the required level of sanitizer, Banwell said.

Restaurants also had to sanitize their ices machines and sanitize the filters in ice and soda machines, Banwell said.

Washing dishes in automatic dishwashers that use a heating element to dry dishes is OK, Banwell said. Those who hand-wash at home should soak cleaned dishes in a sink filled with clear water and two capfuls of non-scented bleach, Banwell said.

Bathing in the affected water is OK, but not for infants.

Lynch said he expects a good result in the latest water test, but he couldn’t be sure.

“There’s nobody around here that feels any worse about this than the people that work in the water utility,” Lynch said. “This is the kind of thing we work hard to prevent. ... Our job is to provide safe water to the residents of the city.”

Last updated: 10:29 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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