Memorial Day weekend is starting off on a bad note for residents of Portland, Oregon, after the Water Bureau issued a boil notice covering the entire city on Friday. The warning was issued after employees at the Water Bureau detected the presence of E. coli bacteria in three separate water tests performed on each of the past three days, indicating that the water supply had been contaminated by feces. The Oregon Health Authority advised that the notice be given city-wide. Also affected are Portland’s wholesale customers, who receive their water from the Bull Run Watershed.
The Bureau advises that affected customers boil all tap water that is going to be used for food preparation, drinking, making ice or brushing teeth for a minimum of one minute. Should any ice or beverages prepared with water that was not boiled on or after May 20 remain, those items should be thrown away.
Jaymee Cuti, spokesperson for the Portland Water Bureau, stated that E. coli was found during routine testing by city employees of two of Portland’s Mt. Tabor reservoirs. The tests took place between May 20 and May 23 at the outlets of uncovered reservoirs 1 and 5 in addition to a water sampling station. The two contaminated reservoirs have been removed from the water system.
Cuti said that of the 935,000 metro area customers who receive their drinking water from Portland, 670,000 of them are affected by the boil notice. It is believed that the overall health risk to customers is “relatively small,” according to Portland Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff, who went on to say that any level of contamination is taken very seriously.
Any health issues that might result from the E. coli contamination would most likely present in the form of diarrhea, cases of which are closely monitored by Tri-County health officials. Although many E. coli strains are not harmful, some can prove lethal. In addition, if E. coli exists in the water, it is more likely that other harmful pathogens, such as salmonella, exist as well. If the strain of E. coli found in the water proves to be harmful, symptoms could also include abdominal cramping, fatigue, fever, gas, loss of appetite and nausea. An emergency press conference was scheduled for noon on Friday.
Among the possible sources of E. coli contamination of drinking water are cases where a pipe breaks, there is a loss of water pressure within the system, or if another situation occurs which exposes the water to outside elements. Although the bacteria indicates that fecal matter was introduced into the water, it is not known whether it was human or from an animal. The Water Bureau will conduct an investigation into the exact cause of the contamination, but an answer may not be apparent.
The boil notice will remain effective until Portland produces a sample in which no E. coli is detected, said Cuti, although she could not estimate when that may occur. The Water Bureau collects roughly 240 bacterial samples each month. Testing for bacteria usually takes approximately 18 hours. It is fairly common for a sample to test positive, in which case confirmation samples are collected. If the presence of bacteria is confirmed, health officials issue a boil notice for all persons who may be affected.
Earlier this month, one of the two reservoirs that now test positive for E. coli was drained after a teenager was caught on camera allegedly urinating into an uncovered reservoir. More on that story can be found here.
By Jennifer Pfalz