E. coli bacteria have been detected in some samples of the water supply in parts of West Baltimore, city officials announced Monday as they required thousands of residents in parts of the city and Baltimore County to boil their water.
The city Department of Public Works first learned Saturday of potential contamination at a test site in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park communities. The specimen was retested to confirm the contamination per emergency protocol ahead of notifying the public, Mayor Brandon Scott said at a news conference Monday evening.
“We are taking this issue very seriously,” Scott said. “This is why we’re here with a full operation of our operation center.”
Some community members didn’t learn of the contamination until Monday morning, in some cases by word-of-mouth from neighbors. The contamination is not known to have sickened anyone, officials said.
In a tweet Monday morning, the city’s department of public works urged residents and businesses across roughly 56 city blocks to boil water used for drinking or cooking. The boil water alert covers about 1,500 homes and facilities located in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods.
That area is bounded by Riggs Avenue to West Franklin Street, north to south, and Carey Street to Pulaski Street, east to west.
City officials still do not know the source of the contamination, but said they are determining the extent of the issue and hope to resume delivery of clean water to residents in impacted areas soon.
Officials said they were confident the contamination was not associated with wastewater treatment or its three water treatment plants, which test every two hours and have not produced unusual results recently. Still, problems can occur where bacteria are introduced to water in the distribution system. When that occurs, the best remedy is to increase the dosage of chlorine, officials said.
In the meantime, the public works department is surveying and sampling other locations within the impacted zone and retesting locations that previously tested negative. The department is also identifying construction projects that may have caused potential impacts to the water system, checking for leaks and monitoring chlorine levels. More testing will occur overnight, with results expected in about 24 hours.
While E. coli was found only in the area where the alert was issued and testing did not find it elsewhere in the advisory area, DPW also extended a boil water advisory across a far larger area as a precaution. The department’s most recent water samples from those areas were negative for E. coli and Total Coliform.
That sprawling area stretches from Interstate 83 and Druid Hill Park across large swaths of West and Southwest Baltimore and into Arbutus, Halethorpe and Lansdowne in Baltimore County.
DPW’s boil water advisory map also showed the area extending into Linthicum Heights in Anne Arundel County, but Matt Diehl, a representative for the county’s Department of Public Works, said in an email Monday evening that it does not purchase water from the city, meaning no public water customer in the jurisdiction need boil their water.
“Comprehensive upgrades to our system have led to full autonomy of our water needs eliminating the need for purchase of water from the City over the last several years,” he said in the email.
The city public works department said in a news release that officials still were searching Monday afternoon for the source of the contamination. The department said it was flushing the system continuously to introduce turnover, increasing chlorination in the area, and performing leak detection and valve assessments.
DPW officials did not respond Monday to requests for an interview.
While the mayor’s office encouraged residents to look for updates about the evolving water issue, the lack of clear communication from officials was a source of concern for some Baltimore residents, community leaders and elected officials.
The department’s initial notification of the contamination came in a series of tweets before 8 a.m. Monday to alert residents that the bacteria had been found in portions of the City Council’s 9th District, which includes the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods. The locations tested included the fire station at 1503 W. Lafayette Ave. and police facilities at 1034 N. Mount St. and at 920 N. Carey St.
“As an extra precaution, DPW will be sampling and surveying the communities in the area of the facilities where the original sampling was performed,” according to a statement posted on the department’s official Twitter account. “Right now, the impact appears only at the facilities listed above, and they are being told to use water for flushing only.”
In a news release, DPW said it regularly samples drinking water and the contamination was found during a routine check. The department said it has 90 unique sample locations and collects 360 samples each month.
By Monday afternoon, fire hydrants were being flushed throughout some of the affected neighborhoods as DPW workers handed out gallon jugs of water to residents on foot and in vehicles.
Ianthia Darden was “not too happy” about a boil water notice on Labor Day she said as she made her way to a water distribution site in the 900 block of North Calhoun Street. DPW workers at the site near Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School distributed 12 pallets containing 1,700 gallons of clean drinking water Monday, officials.
City workers will hand out water at the school again Tuesday as well as at several other locations to be announced.
Darden was grateful to the city crews for taking immediate action to address the community’s need for clean water that was safe to drink, she said. She was also eager for more communication about what comes next.
”We can’t bathe and can’t drink it, so what’s the plan?” Darden said.
The longtime Sandtown-Winchester resident had spent the morning knocking on doors to alert neighbors, particularly older adults, of the boil water notice.
Donald Johnson, one of the neighbors who heard about the water problems from Darden, grabbed two jugs in each hand Monday afternoon. He planned to drop the clean water off at a neighbor’s house in the 800 block of North Stricker Street but paused at the corner of the block to give his grip a rest from the weight of 4 gallons of bottled water.
He said the timing of the notice was uncanny, since two days prior he had discussed with his wife the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, where thousands of people are indefinitely without clean water. While the situation in Baltimore was slightly different, Johnson said, it nevertheless reminded him not to “take stuff for granted.”
Johnson grasped the water jugs once again and turned to continue down the street. He said he hoped the boil notices wouldn’t last much longer.
”This wouldn’t be enough for bath water,” he said.
Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, said the water is technically safe for showering, provided none of the water is consumed. She recommended families with small children limit their exposure to showers or baths until the water is safe once again.
Baltimore City Council member John Bullock, who represents the 9th District, said the communication he received from DPW should have been clearer.
“I had received information that there had been testing and flushing but not what the purpose of what the testing and flushing was,” he said.
Bullock said DPW workers went door-to-door Monday morning and distributed flyers about the E. coli contamination to residents. He said his office has received at least a dozen emails, calls and text messages from concerned constituents. Some worried that they weren’t being given enough bottled water.
“To my knowledge, no one has had symptoms or fallen ill,” Bullock said.
To ensure the health and safety of students and out of an abundance of caution, the Baltimore City school system said it will provide hand sanitizer for staff and students to use for all handwashing; staff, and students will continue to use bottled water for drinking; and all meals will be prepared off-site for the following schools:
- Furman Templeton Preparatory Academy
- Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School
- Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West
- Frederick Elementary School
- Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts
- Career Academy
E. coli contamination can cause intestinal distress with symptoms that include stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. It’s often spread during contact with feces. Illness caused by the bacteria usually is mild and clears up on its own, but in rare cases, a potentially life-threatening complication can result about a week following the initial infection, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
The CDC said E. coli can enter the water supply from sewage overflows, sewage systems that are not working properly, polluted stormwater runoff, or agricultural runoff. Much of Baltimore’s water and sewer infrastructure is quite old and failures such as sewage spills and water main breaks are common.
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People who become ill from the bacteria are encouraged to call their doctors if diarrhea lasts longer than three days, is bloody or is accompanied by a fever higher than 102 degrees or by vomiting so severe that patients can’t keep liquid down.
The public works department also suggested that residents living in the impacted area boil water coming from faucets for at least a minute before using it. Water should be brought to a full, rolling boil for at least a minute and then cooled before using, according to the CDC.
The CDC recommends using boiled or bottled water for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth and feeding pets, and for preparing or cooking food. Filtered tap water also should be boiled.
The Maryland Department of Emergency Management announced Monday around 8:30 p.m. that it has raised the state activation level to “enhanced” to support measures to control the contamination.
Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted at 10:40 p.m. Monday that he has received a briefing from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is assisting Baltimore City officials.
This story has been updated to clarify that Anne Arundel County does not buy water from Baltimore City and no public water users in the county need to boil their water despite the map shared by the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.