Pine Water Is Safe, Despite Rumors

E. coli rumors in Pine persist despite water's clean bill of health


The mother was in a panic.

Her 17-year-old daughter lived in Pine and drank from a water source that was suspected, for a brief period two weeks ago, of causing violent illnesses in the area.

This woman's daughter was among the sick. And a series of tests, performed both at Payson Regional Medical Center and in state laboratories, showed that the girl had "100,000 colony forming units per milliliter" of "E. coli" in her system.

That information, combined with rampant local rumors of an E. coli outbreak fueled by the illnesses, was all the mother a professional nurse thought she needed to know.

By the time the Roundup first got wind of a possible water contamination problem in Pine on the morning of Sept. 30, rumor had become fact in the minds of many. "There's an E. coli outbreak in Pine," a half-dozen callers, and even a few staff members, reported.

But there was not.

Not, at least, of the dangerous strain of E. coli that's become a favorite topic of American worry, thanks to news reports within the last decade of deaths from hamburger meat and E. coli, nonpasteurized apple juice and E. coli, and alfalfa sprouts and E. coli.

That form of E. coli is found only in human blood and tissue. The type found in the Pine girl's system was in her urine indicating a problem along the lines of a bladder infection, according to David Fletcher, assistant health director of the Gila County Health Department.

It can't be stressed enough: Pine water is safe.

Two weeks ago, health department tests showed that the Pine water supply originally under suspicion as a cause of the illnesses contained no coliforms and, as Fletcher said, "If you don't have any coliforms, then you don't have any E. coli."

If there had been coliforms present, the water system operator would have been required by law to immediately notify everyone on that water system to boil their water prior to consumption.

"But since nothing came up, laboratorially, with any E. coli or other coliforms (in tests of water samples), such action was not taken," Fletcher said.

The misunderstood "bug"

Everybody's afraid of E. coli the abbreviated name of Escherichia coli but few people know what it is. Or that it's present in every healthy human body.

According to G.W. Tannock's 1995 book, "Normal Microflora," approximately 0.1 percent of the total bacteria within an adult's intestines is E. coli. And in a newborn infant's intestines, E. coli represents one of the most abundant congregations of bacteria all of which are necessary for us to develop and operate properly, and to remain healthy.

E. coli, along with other species of bacteria, provide us with many necessary vitamins, for example. Humans pretty much depend upon E. coli in our intestines for our source of Vitamin K and B-complex vitamins.

But helpful bacteria like these are located only in regions of the inner body directly exposed to the environment such as the intestines, or upper and lower respiratory tract and never within the bloodstream or tissues.

There are "strains" of E. coli bacteria, however, which can be harmful when they show up in the bloodstream and tissues.

The most dangerous form is E. coli O157:H7, which causes hemorrhaging and, therefore, loss of blood.

Somewhere along its lengthy genesis, this strain developed the ability to produce "Shiga-like toxin," which causes severe damage to the cells that line the wall of the intestine. This can create damage so severe that, not only do we lose water and salts, blood vessels are damaged and hemorrhaging occurs a condition particularly dangerous to small children, who can't tolerate much blood and fluid loss.

In five to 10 percent of E. coli O157:H7 cases involving youngsters, another syndrome called hemolytic uremic syndrome characterizes itself by kidney failure and loss of red blood cells. In severe cases, it can cause permanent kidney damage.

The presence of this bacterium can also be very dangerous to the elderly or infirm. And in combination with other syndromes which involve the blood system, it is lethal in 50 percent of all cases.

"To my knowledge," Fletcher said, "we have never had any laboratorially-confirmed cases of that type of E. coli in Gila County."

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