"Nobody really has any idea how many people are getting sick and dying,"
Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]
Story by Peter Eisler. USA TODAY.
There''s no telling precisely how many Americans get sick each year from drinking bad water. But it is safe to say there are a lot more of them than anyone knows about.
From 1993 to 1996, the most recent years for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has records [when article was published in 1998], there were 52 confirmed outbreaks of waterborne illness that sickened 408,000 people and killed 111. All the deaths and 403,000 of the illnesses were linked to a 1993 bad water outbreak in Milwaukee, WI.
Researchers say those numbers barely scratch the surface of what''s really going on. "I would say the cases we learn about are the tip of the iceberg", says Deborah Levy, a waterborne-disease expert at the CDC.
An investigation by Robert Morris of the Medical College of Wisconsin and Ronnie Levin of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that about 7.1 million Americans suffer nausea or diarrhea each year from bad water. The inquiry suggests that as many as 1,200 die as a result.
Other reports, including a widely circulated CDC study, suggest the number of illnesses is closer to 1 million, with about 900 deaths.
And a soon-to-be published report by the EPA suggests only about 230,000 people get sick each year from contaminated drinking water, with about 50 deaths.
There is no suggestion that the United States is returning to an era when waterborne plagues such as cholera and typhoid were leading causes of death. Today''s drinking water problems are far more likely to cause nausea and diarrhea than any mortal epidemic. But gastrointestinal illnesses from bad water have become increasingly common, according to academic and government studies. The illnesses pose what many researchers see as a serious public health threat with life-threatening consequences, particularly to the people in weakened medical condition.
"Nobody really has any idea how many people are getting sick and dying," says Rebecca Calderon, a waterborne-disease expert at the EPA. The problem is that people tend to attribute stomach problems to flus or food poisoning. They let them run their course over a few days and rarely see a doctor. Even if they do get help, doctors rarely do the kinds of tests that can peg bad water as the culprit.
The medical community is especially concerned by the threat that cryptosporidium and other bacteria pose to the rising number of people with weak immune systems, such as cancer patients getting chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients and AIDS patients. The elderly, pregnant women and infants also face greater risks from bad water.
For five years, the CDC has maintained a standing recommendation that Americans with those conditions should consider boiling their water before drinking it, regardless of its source.