Are we willing to continue living with dirty, dangerous water?

“I wouldn’t wish what we experienced on anyone,” said Jim Toye, commissioner for the city of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.  He’s talking about the infection of cryptosporidium that hit his city in the Spring of 2001.

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Thousands of citizens of North Battleford got sick and three died of complications of cryptosporidiosis.  When I spoke to him on the phone, Toye found it surprising that Kamloopsians drink water that is 10 times as murky as in North Battleford.  And that’s our water at its cleanest.

Murkiness, or turbidity, is the amount of mud, crud and bugs in our water. It’s measured in NTUs  (Nephelometric Turbidity Units).  What  passes as drinkable water in Kamloops the citizens of North Battleford would consider alarming.

The turbidity in Kamloops water is now between 1 and 5 NTU.  The normal turbidity in North Battleford is less than one-tenth that and when it reaches 0.3 NTU, they shut down the treatment plant and identify the problem.

“Levels over 0.3 NTU are time bomb,” says Toye.  He knows from first hand experience.  He and his family were infected but came out of it relatively unscathed.   Those unfortunate enough to have cancer, or to have organ or bone marrow transplants, or a suppressed immune system were not so lucky to get away with just a few days sick at home.

Cryptosporidiosis is spread in water containing spores, called oocysts.  They are tough in water.  Not much kills them, certainly not the chlorine added to Kamloops’ water.

But once they get into the intestines of many mammals, including humans, they set up house and begin to rapidly multiply.   The human host obligingly distribute the offspring of cryptosporidium through diarrhoea.  In daycare centers and homes for the elderly, the oocysts are spread easily unless meticulous personal cleanliness and hygiene is adhered to.

In Medicine Hat, an outbreak was traced to a swimming pool. In the summer of 1996, cryptosporidium made about 2,000 people sick in Cranbrook.  Weeks later, an outbreak hit Kelowna, where more than 10,000 people got sick.

Even before the outbreak in North Battleford, their water treatment plant was better than ours.  In Kamloops, the addition of chlorine is the extent of  our water treatment.  In North Battleford solids are removed, chorine is added, and the PH is adjusted, and the water is finally sand-filtered.  After the outbreak, ultra violet radiation was added to kill cryptosporidium and other bugs.

Kamloops’ water has cryptosporidium spores and, so far, we have been lucky that only a few dozen Kamloopsians become sick from it each year.   But it’s only a matter of time until a major outbreak occurs here unless we do something about it.

This is not fear-mongering, it is a statistical probability.   If you are exposed to a parasite in sufficient quantities, you will get sick.  The exact number required for an infection are not known.

The same oocysts that infects humans also infects many herd animals (cows, goats, sheep among domesticated animals, and deer and elk among wild animals).  Spring runoff  spreads the spores.  Exposure to it does not build immunity.  Unlike viruses, the oocyst is a single-celled animal, a protozoa, a parasite.

Kamloopsians are whistling in the dark if they think that we can get away with doing nothing in the face of such a clear threat to health.  Yet it’s human nature to think that because nothing bad has happened yet, that nothing will.

“Canadians take safe water for granted,” Toye tells me.   When I tell him that it will cost Kamloopsians about $10 a month more for a water, he replies “set your priorities.”

Beyond the immediate damage to the health of citizens of North Battleford, there was lasting damage to their psyche.   They were betrayed by what they considered their birthright – – clean and abundant water.

That’s when the recriminations began. Lawsuits were launched against the city.  Negative national media focused on the terrible infection.  No one wanted to move there or invest in business.  Tourism was zero.

Hindsight is 20/20 but foresight requires the ability to put health before politics.  “Do we want to build a water treatment plant to remove infectious agents?” is a good question.  A better one is “are we willing risk the lives of Kamloops’ most vulnerable citizens though our own procrastination?”

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