Outbreaks of E. coli Should Not Occur in Municipal Water


SEATTLE, WA - Americans relying on rural and small municipal water systems are just as likely to become victims of the deadly E coli bacteria as are Canadians like those in Walkerton, Ontario, says Seattle attorney William Marler of Marler Clark, who represents victims of outbreaks of food and water-borne illnesses.

"Canadian officials are embarrassed that 11 people have been killed and hundreds injured in Walkerton, Ontario from drinking municipal water carrying animal manure laced with E coli," Marler said. "American health, environmental and water officials should be just as embarrassed given the record. People in both countries have an absolute right to safe, clean drinking water and not all are getting it. Why our public officials cannot learn from history shocks me,” continued Mr. Marler.

Selected History of E. coli Contamination in Public Drinking Water:

  • 1999 Washington County Fair (New York) Outbreak – 781 people sickened, 2 deaths and 71 hospitalized. Source was contaminated, untreated well water.
  • 1998 Wyoming Outbreak – 157 people sickened. Source was contaminated, untreated groundwater.
  • 1998 Illinois Outbreak – 3 people sickened. Source was contaminated, untreated groundwater.
  • 1997 Washington State Outbreak – 4 people sickened. Source was contaminated water caused by treatment deficiency.
  • 1995 Minnesota Outbreak – 33 people sickened at a summer camp. Source was attributed to flooding from heavy rains and to an improperly constructed spring.
  • 1990 Cabool, Missouri Outbreak – 243 people sickened, 4 deaths and 2 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome. Source was contaminated, unchlorinated municipal water supply.

What are the symptoms of E. coli O157: H7?

After someone ingests a sufficient quantity of E. coli O157: H7, the bacteria travels through the stomach and small intestine, and then attaches itself to the inside surface of the large intestine and causes inflammation of the intestinal wall. This inflammatory reaction is caused by toxins secreted by the bacteria, and is believed to be the cause of hemorrhagic colitis.

Hemorrhagic colitis is characterized by the sudden onset of abdominal pain and severe cramps, followed within 24 hours by diarrhea. As the disease progresses the diarrhea becomes watery and then grossly bloody – bloody to naked eye. Vomiting can also occur, but there is usually no fever. The incubation period for the disease (i.e., the period from ingestion of the bacteria to the start of symptoms) is typically 3 to 9 days, although shorter and longer periods are not that unusual. An incubation period of less than 24 hours would be unusual, however.

Although most people recover from an E. coli O157: H7 infection, about 5-10% of infected individuals goes on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (“HUS”), a severe life-threatening complication. HUS was first described in 1955, and is now recognized as the most common cause of kidney failure in childhood. E. coli O157: H7 is responsible for over 90% of the cases of HUS that develop in North America. In fact, some researchers now believe that E. coli O157: H7 is the only cause of HUS in children.

HUS is believed to develop when the E. coli O157: H7 enters into the circulation through the inflamed bowel wall, releasing a specific chemical known as shiga-like toxin (SLT). SLT, and probably other chemical mediators, attach to receptors on the inside surface of blood vessel cells (endothelial cells). Some organs appear more susceptible than other to the damage caused by these toxins, possibly due to the presence of increased numbers of toxin-receptors. These organs include the kidney, pancreas, and brain.

There is no known therapy to halt the progression of HUS. The active stage of the disease usually lasts one to two weeks, during which a variety of complications are possible. HUS is a frightening illness that even in the best American medical facilities has a mortality rate of about 5%. By comparison, the mortality rate in the developing world is much higher. About 50% of patients require dialysis due to kidney failure, 25% develop pancreatitis, 25% experience seizures, and 5% suffer from diabetes mellitus. The majority of HUS patients requires transfusion of blood products and develops complications common to the critically ill. The illness is a living nightmare for the patients and families, and leaves a painful memory that lingers long after the acute illness had passed.

Among survivors of HUS, about five percent will eventually develop end stage kidney disease, with the resultant need for dialysis or transplantation, and another five to ten percent experience neurological or pancreatic problems which significantly impair quality of life. Since the longest available follow-up studies of HUS are about twenty (20) years, an accurate lifetime prognosis is not available, and as such, medical follow-up is indicated for even the mildest affected cases.

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Background Information:

Bill Marler has extensive experience representing victims of bacterium illness. He represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million settlement with Jack in the Box. This settlement created a Washington State record for an individual personal injury action. Mr. Marler also represented several other victims from the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak with numerous cases settling for more than $1.5 million each. In May 1998, he settled the 1996 Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak for the Dimmock, Wright, Hiatt, Berman, and Beverly families, whose children were severely injured after consuming Odwalla apple juice. Marler Clark is currently lead counsel in class actions stemming from several Salmonella, Shigella and Hepatitis outbreaks in Washington, California and Arizona. Marler Clark has litigated on behalf of children against McDonalds, Hardees, and Carl's Jr. Marler Clark is presently representing children in an E. coli outbreak stemming from contaminated beef served in a school lunch and others including an Atlanta, Georgia E. coli outbreak involving contaminated swimming pool water.