Milwaukee learned its water lesson,
but many other cities haven't
September 2, 1996
Web posted at: 9:30 p.m. EDT
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on
water quality in the United States.
From Correspondent Dan Rutz
MILWAUKEE (CNN) -- Until 1993, most Americans took the
cleanliness of public drinking water for granted.
The United States has a reputation for high standards in its
water systems; it wasn't until a parasite slipped through
the cracks in Milwaukee and killed more than 100 people that
water systems managers started to take a closer look at how
they monitored their product.
Even so, today, the Natural Resources Defense Council
estimates that more than 50 million Americans are still
drinking from substandard water systems.
And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find that
as many as half the water utilities in the country sometimes
fail to remove the same microbe that caused half the people
in Milwaukee to get sick three years ago.
That parasite, cryptosporidium, made 400,000 people sick and
killed more than 100. Since then, expensive overhauls have
begun at the aging water treatment plants of Milwaukee.
"Our in-house standards are ten times more stringent than the
standards that the federal government demands of us," said
Carrie Lewis of the Milwaukee Water Works. "So we know we
can do better than we have to, and that's our objective."
Making water safe enough to drink is getting tougher. More
people, more development and new diseases affect the quality
and safety of tap water. Nowhere in the industrialized world
has that message hit home harder than in Milwaukee, all
thanks to cryptosporidium.
Milwaukee resident Gary Wells has AIDS, and although he
didn't get sick in the 1993 outbreak, he says he lost more
than one friend to the bacterium.
"I used to drink this," he said, gesturing towards his sink,
"because I thought I could trust that it was OK. But
obviously I was wrong."
The CDC says boiling water for a minute, running it through a
fine filter or using bottled water should protect those with
impaired immune systems from cryptosporidiosis.
People with impaired immune systems include people with AIDS,
and those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
Most of the time the CDC says these precautions are probably
unnecessary. But, choosing to be safe rather than sorry, the
AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin distributes bottled water
to its needy clients.
Since the Milwaukee outbreak, precautionary boil-water orders
are becoming more common across the country. It even
happened in Washington, D.C. this summer.
The aging of the population, and the increase in immune
diseases like AIDS, increases the public health risk of
Before Milwaukee, sporadic outbreaks might never have drawn
"We've been sort of spoiled by our own success and become
complacent, and I think what happened in Milwaukee was really
a product of that complacency," said Dr. Robert Morris of the
Medical College of Wisconsin.
The CDC estimates that each year, infectious drinking water
sickens a million Americans and kills a thousand. But most
cases are isolated.
In Milwaukee, it took a massive outbreak and public outrage
to bring about overdue improvements and safeguards.
And as the debate for clean water drags on elsewhere in the
country, some wonder how many cities will also learn their
lessons the hard way.
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