Residents advised to boil before drinking, cooking

August 6, 2006

Residents in northeastern parts of San Diego should boil their tap water before drinking it or using it for food preparation because bacteria, including E. coli, were found in one water sample drawn from a residential site, Mayor Jerry Sanders and environmental health officials announced yesterday.


Approximate area
of water alert

E. coli indicates contamination by fecal matter. It can cause nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Certain strains of it can be fatal for people with weak immune systems.

The boil-water notice affects the following communities: Rancho Peñasquitos, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Rancho Bernardo, Bernardo Heights, Bernardo Trails, Bernardo Oaks, Oaks North, Pomerado Park and the Lake Hodges area.

Restaurants and other businesses that serve food to the public in those communities have been asked to close until the boil order is lifted. The county's Department of Environmental Health is sending inspectors to issue notices to close.

In the meantime, a new round of tests is being conducted, and results are set to be released at a 5 p.m. news conference today.

Water safety

E. coli, a bacterium that can cause nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps if ingested, was found in tap water tested from one site in Rancho Peñasquitos.

Residents in several communities in northern San Diego are urged to boil their drinking water for at least one minute or use bottled water. Boiled or bottled water also should be used for preparing food until further notice.

Symptoms of illness start 24 to 72 hours after ingestion. Most cases clear up on their own in a few days.

The city has established a hotline to address community concerns: (619) 570-1070.

The boil order came after tests of water from a residential spigot in Rancho Peñasquitos came back positive for E. coli. The tests were conducted because a water main ruptured Tuesday. It is possible that dirt with fecal matter got into the broken pipe and ended up in the water system.

“There is reason to believe this problem could be simply limited to this immediate neighborhood,” said Sanders, who held a news conference not far from the site of the water main break near Talca Avenue and Oviedo Street.

The order is a precautionary measure, officials said.

“This is a conservative approach to take all possible caution to protect public health,” said Brian Bernados, San Diego district engineer with the California Department of Health Services.

No illnesses had been reported as of last night, said Tedi Jackson, a spokeswoman with the city Water Department.

Routine water testing was done in the wake of the water main break, which has been repaired, Jackson said. Test results Thursday were positive for total coliform bacteria but negative for E. coli.

The presence of coliform bacteria, which is common in the environment but not generally harmful, typically signals a problem with the treatment system or the pipes that distribute the water, Jackson said.

As a result, a second round of testing was done Friday. Yesterday's results were positive for coliform and E. coli.

Sanders made the boil-water order shortly after he learned of the results.

As news of water contamination spread, residents in affected areas flocked to grocery stores to buy bottled water. The manager of a Vons grocery store on Bernardo Plaza Drive said people were streaming in last night to buy bottled water.

“Honestly, we will probably run out,” said the manager, who declined to give his name because of company policy.

U.S. water supplies generally safe, but residents worry and government regulates.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service; 1/6/1999; Nussbaum, Paul

Water should be the ideal beverage for the health-conscious, bargain-hunting '90s. It's fat-free, sugarless and non-caloric. Cheap, too.

"Honest water,'' Shakespeare called it, ``which never left man in the mire.''

But these days, drinking water is leaving plenty of people in doubt, if not in the mire. How safe is it? What's in it? Where does it come from? Should you drink it?

Each year, between 50 and 1,200 people die in the United States from water-borne diseases, largely from microbes, and 200,000 to 1.3 million are made ill, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, sales of bottled water are rising by about 9 percent a year, as Americans try to protect themselves from their own tap water.

``Overall, Americans can feel very confident about the quality of their drinking water, but it's not the kind of thing we should ever take for granted,'' said Charles J. Fox, assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Across the nation, scientists are busy inspecting water supplies for everything from arsenic to xylene as public water suppliers scramble to meet new federal requirements to tell their customers what's in their drinking water.

While drinking water typically is safe (91.4 percent of U.S. public water systems reported no violations of health standards in 1996), problems occur often enough to warrant concern.

Last year, 39 public water systems in Pennsylvania issued 70 ``boil water'' advisories because of unhealthy levels of bacteria in drinking water. And in New Jersey, last year 7 percent of community water systems exceeded state standards for such cancer-causing contaminants as solvents, degreasers and gasoline components, according to state compliance reports.

There are many ways for drinking water to become contaminated. Chemicals from factories, refineries, buried storage tanks and landfills can migrate to underground or surface water supplies. Animal wastes and pesticides may be carried by rain runoff to streams and lakes or seep into aquifers. Human wastes may be discharged into water supplies that also are used for drinking. Some hazardous materials, such as radon and radium, occur naturally and can contaminate local supplies.

Even water-chlorination systems, designed to kill bacteria, can create problems: Chlorine combines with decaying plant matter to make compounds linked to bladder cancer. To try to balance the risks from disease-carrying microbes and chlorine treatment, the EPA last month set new health standards for public water suppliers.

Many Americans get their water from public systems. Others use private wells. Public water supplies are treated and tested regularly. And the overwhelming majority provide safe water. Private wells, though, are the responsibility of individual homeowners. And many health officials recommend private well owners test their drinking water annually for chemical, biological and radioactive contaminants.

Here are some of the most common drinking-water problems.

CRYPTOSPORIDIUM. A microscopic, disease-causing parasite, cryptosporidium is spread through human or animal fecal matter. It causes the disease cryptosporidiosis, a common (the CDC estimates 80 percent of Americans have had it) disease which causes diarrhea, cramps and flu-like symptoms and can kill people with weak immune systems, such as the very young and the elderly. In 1993, in the largest outbreak of waterborne disease in the United States, cryptosporidium got into Milwaukee's water supply when heavy rains overwhelmed the city's water-treatment system. The disease killed about 50 people and sickened 400,000 others.

Cryptosporidium is resistant to chlorination, so the best general treatment is filtration. Large water utilites are required to test water sources monthly for the bacteria, but there is no mandatory treatment.

GIARDIA. Spread through human or animal fecal matter, the parasite can cause the disease giardiasis. The parasite can survive in water for one to three months, and symptoms of the disease, including diarrhea, fatigue and cramps, can persist for weeks or months.

Although tests specifically for giardia are expensive, those that show the presence of coliform indicate the water is probably contaminated with giardia as well. Public water systems using surface water are required to disinfect water so that at least 99.9 percent of the parasites are killed. Chlorination is effective in killing the parasite, as is boiling water.

LEAD. A problem in water caused by old lead service lines or in-house plumbing in homes built more than 30 years ago, lead can also be found in soldered joints of copper pipes and in brass fixtures. For infants and young children, chronic exposure can cause brain damage, learning disabilities and hyperactivity. In adults, lead has been linked to kidney problems, high blood pressure, anemia and nerve damage.

Flushing water lines by running faucets for a few minutes at the start of the day can significantly lower lead levels. Since lead dissolves more easily in hot water, use cold water for food preparation.

MERCURY. EPA senior scientist Arnold Kuzmack said mercury is ``essentially unheard of'' in public water systems, but private wells may be more susceptible.

There are several forms of mercury. The type that is a hazard in drinking water is inorganic mercury. Exposure to high levels of inorganic mercury can cause kidney damage, nervous system effects, nausea and diarrhea.

Inorganic mercury can enter the water from natural deposits, manufacturing plants, pesticides, fungicides, old paint, factories, cemeteries, landfills and atmospheric residue from coal-fired power plants.

Although hazardous, inorganic mercury compounds are less dangerous than metallic mercury or organic mercury compounds, such as methylmercury, which is a contaminant that builds up in fish and other animals that are eaten by people. Inorganic mercury is not as volatile as other forms and does not present a hazard in showering or bathing.

The maximum level of mercury permitted in drinking water by Environmental Protection Agency standards is 2 parts per billion (the equivalent of 2 micrograms per liter; think of it as two cents per $10 million). EPA estimates that for an adult of average weight, daily exposure to 21 micrograms of inorganic or organic mercury will probably not result in any harm to health; that means an adult could safely drink 2.6 gallons of water daily containing the maximum allowable level, provided there were no other exposures to mercury.

In recent surveys by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in South Jersey, 2,239 private water wells were examined, and 265 had levels of mercury that exceeded the EPA standard. The highest level found was a well with 42 parts per billion, said Eric Evenson, chief of the New Jersey district office. Additional surveys of wells are now under way, and USGS scientists are attempting to trace the source.

Mercury used to be used as a fungicide and pesticide, especially on seeds and in orchards, so researchers are especially interested in former or current agricultural land as a possible source of the mercury contamination.

In some states, health officials recommend that private well owners have their wells tested for mercury contamination. Kuzmack, the EPA senior scientist, said ``if somebody had 5 (parts per billion), I wouldn't take emergency measures, but if they had 40, they definitely should use bottled water.''

If testing shows elevated levels of mercury, the results should be reported to the county health department, which can help with further testing and state funding for special filters or for a connection to a public water supply.

Don't boil water to attempt to deal with mercury; it can concentrate the levels of inorganic mercury.

ORGANIC CHEMICALS. Chemicals from industry, agriculture and underground storage tanks sometimes get into drinking supplies. A recent source of concern is MTBE, an additive to gasoline required in urban areas to help prevent air pollution. MTBE, methyl tertiary butyl ether, has been found to migrate quickly to water supplies, and the EPA last month created a panel to evaluate MTBE hazards and ways to eliminate them.

NITRATE. More common in rural areas, where it can enter the drinking supply from chemical fertilizers and animal manure, nitrate is a hazard primarily to babies and pregnant women. Bacteria in an infant's digestive tract can convert nitrate into nitrite, which can starve the baby's system of oxygen. In worst cases, brain damage or death can result.

RADIUM. A naturally occurring radioactive substance that is present in small amounts in many water supplies, radium has been found at elevated levels in groundwater in various locations.

Once touted as a health benefit and sold in bottled water, radium is now known to cause cancer. Exposure to radium has been associated with an increased risk of bone and nasal cancers. At the maximum level permitted by current EPA standards (5 picocuries per liter), radium-tainted water would increase the lifetime risk of fatal cancer by one case in 10,000 people. That means that if 10,000 people were to drink a half-gallon of the tainted water every day for 70 years, the number of cancer deaths would be one higher than if they drank untainted water.

Three isotopes of radium are cause for concern in drinking water: Radium 224, 226 and 228. The health standard for radium 226 and 228 is 5 picocuries per liter, and no standard has yet been established for radium 224. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Geological Survey are conducting studies to determine how widespread radium 224 is. Currently, public water suppliers often deal with radioactive water by diluting it with uncontaminated water. Additional treatment could be required if the EPA changes current testing methods and adopts health standards for radium 224.

For private well owners, an ordinary water softener (cost, about $400) removes radium from water very effectively.

A ``gross alpha'' test, to show the presence of radioactivity in water, typically costs about $110. Health officials recommend installing a water softener if the test reveals more than 15 picocuries per liter. A homeowner's guide to radioactivity in drinking water is available at: 

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