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The Walkerton E. coli Outbreak

Editor’s Note:  This is the second installment in a ten-part series on meaningful foodborne illness outbreaks.

While it did not get enough attention in the United States, the Walkerton Water tragedy sent shockwaves through every public water supplier in the western world.  What happened and the dire threat of E. coli O157:H7 in water would become the top seminar topic of many a utility gathering for years afterward.   Here’s the story:

municipal water.jpgThe Walkerton Public Utilities Commission provides public water for the town in Ontario, Canada.  Beginning on May 15, 2000, many Walkerton residents began simultaneously experience bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and other symptoms of E. coli infection.

For several days, the water utility told the public the water was “OK” even though its laboratory testing was finding contamination by E. coli O157:H7; probably from farm runoff near a well that was known to be vulnerable to intrusion from surface water.

As more and more people became sick, the region’s chief medical officer issued a “boil water” order on May 21st.  Half of the 5,000 Walkerton residents became ill and seven died with at least some of the deaths due to the lack of warning from the water utility.

A criminal investigation eventually focused on two utility mangers, who later admitted to falsifying reports.  One went to jail for a year, and the other was placed under house arrest.

Photo courtesy CDC/ Richard Duncan, MRP, Sr. Proj. Mngr, North Carolina State University, The Center for Universal Design

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