Drinking-water series – 5 – When it all hits the fan!


This looks like a great spot to camp for the
night. There’s somebody already camping. Yeah, I’m so ready to stop. Hi, I’m John, and this is my partner Sally. Hi, I’m Nigel, nice to meet ya. Hey, isn’t it great to live in a country
that’s so clean? Not like other countries, where they have
cholera in their rivers. Here you can drink straight out of the river. It’d be a brave person to do that. A lot of people think that, but it’s not
true. Our streams and rivers can look really clean,
but it’s not always safe to drink unless you bring it to the boil. You get some water, I’ll light the fire
and we’ll have ourselves a cup of tea. So, what kinds of bugs and germy things are
in there? Well, you’ve got a number of things. For example there are bacteria, which are
tiny single-celled organisms. What? What, what are you looking at? Then there are protozoa, which are also single-celled
organisms, but they’re a lot bigger than bacteria. Are you feeling hot, or it is just me? Well, they’re still too small to see with
the naked eye though. Oh yeah, they’re microscopic. But even smaller than bacteria are viruses. Don’t know how long I can hold on … ooooooooohh
. They can be quite hard to kill. Wow. You’re quite the expert, aren’t you? Well, I should be. Part of my job’s keeping an eye on small
water supplies around the region. Shame you weren’t with us on our last holiday. It was a disaster. Yeah, it wasn’t our best holiday. It was our midwinter ski trip – Sally and
me and our two daughters. We usually meet up with some friends once
a year. Nice. Yeah, the first thing I heard something was
wrong was when I was standing in the queue for the lift, the ski lift, and ah – two
instructors in front of me. One of them said to the other one –
Are you sick yet? Coz just about everyone else I know is. Um, so that’s when I first got an inkling
that there might be something wrong. Oh, this is last July at the local ski field. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I was part of the team that got called
in. That was quite a bad outbreak. Bad is the word. We’d been skiing all day, and were at the
minigolf later in the evening – And my daughter was feeling fine one minute
, and then she threw up on the course– Which wasn’t a good look. Mm. And that was when the illness started in the
children. My other daughter didn’t throw up, but just
felt a bit off-colour and had a bit of a temperature one night. And I was worse. I had diarrhoea, vomited a couple of times,
and then had diarrhoea for about 7 days. Oh, bad luck. I suspect you probably had cryptosporidiosis
or a camphylobacter infection, rather than, or rather than norovirus infection, which
I suspect is what you and the kids had a touch of, John. A norovius infection usually goes away after
a couple of days. One of our friend’s children was also really
really crook. She had a full night staying up and vomiting,
high fevers for two and a half days. Again, that sounds like norovirus. We heard later it was something in the water. You could buy bottled water– –but it was
quite warm in the cafeteria, so I just kept filling my bottle from the water pump – you
can only drink so much coffee before you get the jitters. And the kids did the same. Anyway, next morning was when I started feeling
really sick, so we didn’t hang around. That was the end of the holiday for us. And I don’t want to talk about the trip
home. Apparently there were quite a few people sick
like us. I saw it on the news. Yeah, I actually had a big part of that investigation,
probably just after you guys left. We started getting information from local
GPs, and they were seeing an increased number of people with gastro-like problems. So I raced up there to check it out. It was a bit like trying to solve a whodunnit. It was 11 am. I was the first investigator on the scene. Immediately, I could see something was wrong. I met with the management and suggested first
off that the cleaners wear gloves to protect themselves and clean up any mess with a diluted
bleach solution. I didn’t want the cleaners to become sick
too. Whatever it was, the cause had to be identified
and neutralised as soon as possible. Here were my chief suspects. One, person-to-person spread through inadequate
hand hygeine, particularly around toilet facilities. I can’t stress enough how important it is
to wash hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before preparing food. Two, a large food outbreak associated with
one of the cafeterias. And lastly, the water supply. I continued the investigation. Here’s what I knew: people from a whole
range of different sites on the mountain were ill. People who had eaten at the main cafeteria
were ill. But people who had eaten different kinds of
food were also ill and some people brought their own food with them .
It immediately looked like it wasn’t going to be a food problem, coz you couldn’t explain
all the illness based off some food exposure. It was much wider than that. The management assured me there’d been no
water issues, and no problems with sewage or anything like that so I didn’t suspect
the water supply. I was busy following some hand hygiene leads
but it was getting nowhere. I smelled a rat. It just didn’t add up. I decided to go pay the management another
little visit. This time they came clean. Turns out they actually had had problems with
the sewage. Here’s what happened. There was a lake further up the mountain,
which was the lake they drew the water from. However, there wasn’t much water in the
lake this season, so they’d started also using water from the stream that ran down
the side of the mountain. It was around this time that a soft drink
can became lodged in the sewage system , causing the whole thing to overflow down the valley
and into the stream they drew their water from. I explained it wasn’t a good idea to have
the sewage treatment system uphill from the water supply, where it could flow into the
water used for drinking if anything went wrong. I think they learned their lesson. And for me, it was another mystery solved
That could be quite serious, couldn’t it? Withholding that kind of information. Yeah. They could have been prosecuted for not fully
cooperating. The ski operation was closed for a day, wasn’t
it? Which, you know, you can imagine how much
money was involved in doing that. So they certainly must have suffered financially. And they also suffered in terms of reputation,
because once this thing got out into the media– –it was as big as Ben Hur. It’s a bit of a worry, isn’t it? Makes you wonder how much of our drinking
water is actually safe. Well, in this country, drinking water is usually
safe. Most water supplies in medium and large cities
have safe water. Small water supplies around the country may
not be so safe though. This includes water for camping grounds, small
rural communities, sports clubs, marae, that sort of thing. It doesn’t take much for a water supply
to become contaminated. One dead possum in the water tank …
Yeah, yeah, can make a lot of people very sick. Outbreaks often occur when a combination of
things go wrong. The source water is unusually dirty the UV
light has failed or the chlorine has run out. Sometimes one thing could be anticipated,
and one isn’t. We had a situation a while back. Most of the students at a country school had
been laid low by some kind on infection. A nasty diarrhoea-type illness. It only came to our notice because a school
nurse contacted the health authorities to find a safe way to clean up a lot of vomit. I was part of the investigation team that
got sent to the school to have a look at the environment. You know, where the sewage discharge went
and also looked at the drinking water system, kitchen. How did you test the drinking water supplies? Did you just go to a tap and–
Well, yeah, it was quite a few samples. We did what we call ‘E. coli’ testing. E. coli isn’t usually harmful in itself,
but if E. coli’s found, it indicates there’s faecal matter in the water. Sure enough, we found E. coli which showed
us that treatment had failed and pathogens were getting through into the drinking water. How did the treatment fail? They had a UV treatment system, and there
was a lot of organic material coming off the swamp. Lots of suspended particles, which made the
water cloudy. Without filters before the water got the UV,
it was wasn’t able to work very well. Pathogens can sort of hide behind large particles
and so don’t get zapped by the UV light. And then we found out later that the previous
week the light had blown a bulb. Ah, I think the UV bulb has blown. Nah, I’m not sure what size. Hold on, I’ll have a look. And a new bulb had arrived a couple of days
later and he put it in – and in the interim had done nothing else. So it wasn’t what you would call good water
management. Certainly not the way to do it – even if
he had chlorinated the water in the interim it might’ve addressed most of the problem. They needed a contingency plan. If the main disinfection system fails, then
do something else. Waiting around for a new bulb isn’t enough. So what was actually contaminating the water? A neighbour was grazing cows around the water
source. I think he even took cattle down to the swamp,
which drained down into the school’s property. They didn’t know what they were drinking. If they’d’ve done some monitoring, they
would’ve found out. Yuck, that’s disgusting. Yup. So now they’ve got back-up UV lights and
a new generator in case the power fails. And I hear they’ve got a new caretaker. Yeah, I suppose you’ve gotta take care if
you’re a caretaker . Tea everybody? Cheers!

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