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The Planet

The Year That Made Milwaukee Infamous

The Planet, July 1994, Volume 1, number 1

Steve Schutz doesn't drink the water anymore.

Before April 1993, the Sierra Club activist, like a lot of other Milwaukeeans, didn't think twice about filling up the glass at the kitchen sink.

In early April, however, the 37-year-old Schutz began to experience flu-like symptoms. To fight off dehydration, Schutz drank more tap water. And he got more sick.

By the time city officials issued a health advisory on April 7 telling Milwaukeeans to boil their drinking water, Schutz had already been sick for a week.

The next day the city closed down the Howard Avenue treatment plant, which serves 800,000 people in south Milwaukee and 10 outlying suburbs. But it was too late. Hundreds of thousands were suffering the same symptoms.

The final tally linked at least 104 deaths and 400,000 cases of illness to the contaminated tap water. These grim numbers earn the Milwaukee incident the distinction of being the worst case of waterborne disease outbreak in modern U.S. history.

Milwaukee's drinking water met all federal standards for safety. Dozens of disease-causing microbes that can contaminate water supplies are still not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the Milwaukee incident, the culprit turned out to be a microscopic organism called cryptosporidium. Catching cryptosporidium is not easy, especially once it's in the system. It is small enough to slip by the filters of Milwaukee's water treatment system and resilient enough to survive chlorination.

The solution, says Blake Early, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program, is to protect watersheds that supply drinking water by regulating secondary sources of water pollution such as runoff from farms.

Unless water supplies are protected at the source, Early says, new chemical and organic contaminants will continue to evade the inadequate controls of the nation's aging water systems.

In the case of cryptosporidium, the EPA did not recognize it as a drinking water threat until 1991, when the agency proposed including it in the next round of regulations. However, no federal action was ever taken.

"We thought we should get to it sometime down the line," said the EPA's Jim Elder soon after the Milwaukee disaster. "Theoretically, we could have regulated it, but it wasn't really on our radar screen."

It still isn't. In May, Milwaukee city officials issued a new warming. Residents with weakened immune systems, they said, should boil their water because traces of cryptosporidium had again been found in the water supply.

The following day, the Senate moved to weaken the Safe Drinking Water Act.

--Neil Hamilton

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