WASHINGTON -- Health officials warned nearly 1 million Washington-area residents yesterday that their tap water could be contaminated and must be boiled for safe drinking -- an announcement that sparked a frantic stampede to grocery stores for bottled water.
EPA officials and the city's health commissioner, Mohammad N. Ahkter, urged residents of Washington to boil drinking water for a minimum of one minute as a precautionary measure until Monday. Virginia officials recommended boiling water for 10 minutes.
The Maryland suburbs were not affected by the water emergency -- but more than 350,000 Maryland residents commute to work in the affected areas.
While no excess bacteria had been discovered in the Washington-area drinking water, EPA officials said they had detected excess levels of suspended particles in the water.
They said the problem probably was caused when heavy rains triggered excess run-off that carried soil or animal waste into a local reservoir, and the filtration system failed to remove it.
"The possibility of infection is very low," Dr. Ahkter said at a news conference last night. "But I don't want to take any chances, and neither should the general public."
The affected area includes almost all of the nation's capital, Arlington County, Va., and parts of Fairfax County, Va., including the Pentagon and National Airport.
At the White House, where President Clinton and his family were holding the first of several holiday season parties, Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said the scare wasn't a problem because the White House has its own water filtration system. She also noted that Mr. Clinton drinks mostly bottled water from Arkansas.
Grocery stores throughout the region were besieged with customers seeking bottled water.
"They just pulled everything we had off the shelves," said Jim Peterson, who works at the Giant Food store in Bailey's Cross Roads, Va. "We started limiting people to one gallon per customer, but now that's gone, too."
Lynn Caligiuri said she struck out trying to buy bottled water at a Capitol Hill Safeway. "The water aisle was just like a battle zone -- I got run into three times just trying to decide what to buy."
Dr. Ahkter assured residents that it was still safe to bathe. But tap water used for drinking, cooking or ice cubes should be boiled.
The problem was detected Monday, but the level of "suspended particles" did not exceed safe standards until Tuesday, said Stanley Laskowski, acting administrator for region three of the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes Washington.
He defended the decision to wait until yesterday to alert the public, maintaining "we had to confirm the data."
"I drank the water this morning," he added.
While it has not been found, officials are especially concerned about an organism known as cryptosporidium, which can cause diarrhea, nausea and cramps. There is no effective treatment for the infection, which can last a few weeks.
Last spring, water-borne cryptosporidium sickened 370,000 Milwaukee residents and was linked to the deaths of 47 others, many of whom had AIDS or weakened immune systems.
Most at risk, said Dr. Ahkter, are AIDS patients, organ transplant recipients and other people with depressed immune systems. Area hospitals and clinics moved quickly to warn patients and secure safe water.
After being notified shortly before 5 p.m., Arlington Hospital officials immediately put a disaster plan into effect, said Stephanie McNeill, public affairs director.
Bottled Evian water was given to the 300 patients, and the hospital called an emergency supplier to bring in tanker-trucks of water.
All 691 water fountains were shut off at the Pentagon -- the world's largest office building. At the State Department, signs were posted at all bathrooms and water fountains, and warnings were broadcast every 30 minutes. At some Washington embassies hardly an eyebrow was raised.
"This is something that is not new to people coming from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or other parts of Asia," said Indian Ambassador Siddhartha Ray. At Westover Market in Arlington, the stampede for bottled water lasted only 45 minutes -- until it was all gone.
"People took four or five gallons -- whatever they could carry," said manager Bert Frey. Then, he said, "they started buying anything they could drink -- Cokes, milk, bottled tea, you name it. One little old lady told me she wasn't worried -- she drinks vodka."