Remembering the 1993 “Crypto” Outbreak

By: Michelle Gonzalez

In 1993, there was a cryptosporidium outbreak in the Milwaukee tap water. It caused thousands of Milwaukee residents to get sick from a virus called cryptosporidiosis. Today the outbreak is still remembered among Milwaukee and acknowledged in the science community around the country. 

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik/Creative Commons

 Everyone can agree that water is essential to everyday life, but imagine that your tap water was making you sick. In 1993, this was an experience lived by many Milwaukee residents. The city gave a boiling advisory to its residents to boil the tap water for 45 minutes and let it cool off before it was safe to drink.

The outbreak of cryptosporidium in the drinking water lasted for approximately two  weeks. According to Paul Nannis, health commissioner in Milwaukee at the time of the outbreak, around 403,000 people got sick with the cryptosporidium virus, cryptosporidiosis and approximately 69 people died.

Cryptosporidium did not affect everyone who consumed the water, but it most commonly affected the elderly, infants and toddlers, as well as patients diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. However, crypto also affected people with stronger immune systems such as, Brian Kazinski.

After 21 years, Kazinski still remembers the outbreak.

“I was drinking it and I wasn’t feeling any effects to it,” Kazinski said. “I was drinking it for awhile and I never felt any symptoms and after a while it just came up on me and I got the symptoms of it.”

Kazinski was about 15 or 16 years old when the cryptosporidium outbreak occurred in 1993.

Without realizing he had cryptosporidiosis, he felt sick and worn down on his first day not knowing what was wrong. His main symptom was watery diarrhea, but since Kazinski was not recovering quickly, Kazinski and his mother both realized there was something wrong. His mother took him to get checked. He was then diagnosed with cryptosporidiosis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common symptoms of cryptosporidium consisted of watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever and vomiting.

Naturally, Kazinski’s mother was highly concerned. “She was kinda relieved, but she was also mad because I was drinking the water without boiling it,” Kazinski said.

Photo by Lee Brimelow/Creative Commons

During the outbreak, Milwaukee Public Schools remained open. Schools did close off the water fountains at every school to prevent children from drinking the contaminated water.

“If you wanted to bring water, you could bring bottled water from home,” Kazinski said.

At the time, bottled water sales rose. According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, a Pick ‘n Save store in Milwaukee sold 2,500 gallons of bottled water just on April 8, 1993.   

Paul Nannis

Paul Nannis can recall his experience during the cryptosporidium outbreak.

“It was the definitely the most intense three weeks of my life, having to walk in on a Monday and all these people were getting sick, and more, and more, and more,” Nannis said.

As patients with the same symptoms increased, doctors, clinics and hospitals were scrambling to treat the virus and prevent it from continuing to spread.

“The work of public health is to connect the dots and we kept getting these reports coming in from doctors and clinics and calling really for information,” Nannis said, “And as we connected the dots, we realized, clearly something was going on. We had to figure out what.”

Kazinski was prescribed medication and recovered in approximately five days.

Treatments for crypto varied depending on the patient’s immune system. Some patients recovered without treatment, others needed to drink more fluids and others used anti-diarrheal medicine such as imodium.

As the number of people with crypto rose, lawsuits against the city of Milwaukee and companies such as General Chemical Corp., Sara Lee Corp., and Peck Meat Packing Corp. began.

Linda Hansen

Around 1,600 people filed a claim against the city of Milwaukee. Linda Hansen, a lawyer  working on behalf of the city of Milwaukee said the case lasted between six to seven years. The lawsuit cases took years to decide because the courts had difficulty deciding how the cases should be handled.

Although Hansen was working on behalf of the city, she was also affected by the outbreak.

“I was living in Milwaukee County and I was actually home on maternity leave when the city enacted the boiling advisory,  which I believe was April 7, 1993.” Hansen said.

After a few years, the cases were resolved with settlements. The city of Milwaukee agreed to pay $100,000, General Chemical Corp agreed to $1.5 million and Sara Lee Corp. agreed to $250,000.

As time passed, the city of Milwaukee and the companies put the crypto outbreak behind them trying to regain the credibility they lost. The facts, stories and experiences of the largest documented waterborne disease outbreak in the U.S. cannot easily be forgotten by the people who lived it.