Public awareness about E. coli bacteria was raised back in 1999 and 2000 due to national news reports of two waterborne disease outbreaks associated with a specific pathogenic strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7. An outbreak in August 1999 at the Washington County Fair in eastern NYS resulted in two deaths. A similar outbreak in May 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, caused more then 2,300 cases of disease and seven deaths.
However, people should not become unnecessarily alarmed that they might be at sudden risk of becoming ill from drinking public water or well water at home. It should be understood that serious problems with sewage pollution occurred in these two cases which were not detected, reported, or responded to by the system operators (i.e. a serious operational blunder with public health consequences). Many people are simply misinformed about water testing techniques, the origins of and transmission of E. coli bacteria, and the simple methods of preventing E. coli disease infection.
In reality, E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks are rare in drinking water due to modern and diligent disinfection treatment and a proper emphasis on source water development and protection. Springs and surface water supplies are much more susceptible to sewage pollution and agricultural runoff than a properly sited and constructed drilled well. The fact is E. coli 0157:H7 is primarily transmitted by the fecal-oral route and many more outbreaks are caused by eating contaminated and undercooked ground beef or by person-to-person contact after an infected person did not wash their hands properly after using the toilet. Some outbreaks have also occurred in unpasteurized milk and apple cider products which had been carelessly contaminated by animal waste.
Prevention is Simple:
- DO NOT eat undercooked hamburger or other ground beef products.
- DO NOT drink unpasteurized milk, juice, or cider.
- ALWAYS wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing a child's diaper.
- ALWAYS wash your hands before handling foods and thoroughly rinse ready-to-eat foods such as vegetables in a salad.
- ALWAYS keep raw meats separate from ready-to-eat foods. Counters, dishes, or utensils in contact with raw meat such as ground beef (E. coli) or chicken (salmonella) must be thoroughly washed with hot soapy water to prevent cross contamination of foods.
- DO make sure that your drinking water comes from a public supply which is treated at a municipal water plant, or from a private source which is properly constructed and protected.
- DO have your private water supply periodically tested for coliform bacteria at a certified laboratory and take steps to protect the supply from sources of pollution.
- DO learn more about basic sanitation and foodborne and waterborne disease transmission.
If you would like a fact sheet about E. coli 0157:H7 infection, coliform bacteria in drinking water supplies, or would like to have your water tested, please call the Environmental Health Division of the Cattaraugus County Health Department at 373-8050, weekdays between 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM.