Researchers still see a need for required disinfection in Wisconsin communities

By: Aliza Goldberg

A past legal decision faces criticism from researchers who found human intestinal viruses in Wisconsin’s groundwater causing mild to severe illnesses in people who drink it. Without a federal requirement to disinfect their groundwater, communities will be in control of whether or not they improve their water system, despite potentially harmful consequences if it is not treated.

The Wisconsin legislature passed a law in 2011 that prohibited the Department of Natural Resources to require continuous disinfection of municipal water systems despite studies showing that communities had waterborne disease in their well water. This repealed a rule implemented by the DNR based on the findings of research microbiologist, Mark Borchardt.

Research Microbiologist, Mark Borchardt

Research Microbiologist, Mark Borchardt

Borchardt led the study by installing ultraviolet light disinfection on the municipal wells of 14 Wisconsin communities. In the first year of the study, half of the communities had the UV disinfection installed and the other communities served as controls. These roles were then switched in the second year of the study.

According to Borchardt’s findings, between seven and 25 percent of the illnesses in the communities were from drinking water. This, amongst Borchardt’s other discoveries, led the United States Environmental Protection Agency to create the rule requiring disinfection of groundwater systems in Wisconsin communities.

A change in opinion

This was not enough to prove to lawmakers that the disinfection was a necessary treatment. Borchardt said he believes much of this was from the massive philosophical shift in 2010 about the role of government.

“I think their reasoning was just sort of this philosophy that government shouldn’t be involved in certain things and one of them is that the government shouldn’t be involved in drinking water,” Borchardt said.

According to the co-sponsorship memo from Senator Sheila Harsdorf and Representative Erik Severson, the DNR’s mandate forced a significant cost on municipalities. Cumberland Municipal Utility, an electric, water and wastewater utility located in Cumberland, Wis., agreed with the claim, saying the rule would require more sophisticated monitoring equipment, as well as added storage for chemicals.

“Continuous chlorination brings a ‘continuous expense’ to small utilities and communities that are already currently struggling under budget constraints,” the company said in a written statement.

But according to Borchardt, these communities already have disinfection in place in case of a water boil order. Borchardt said continuous disinfection of water supply would not be a massive capital reconstruction cost.

The unexpected consequences

The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau asked Borchardt to analyze how much the disinfection system was going to cost. However, Borchardt said they never figured out the cost of illnesses caused by water that is not disinfected.

“Disinfection prevents a lot of illnesses that will result in lost work time, hospitalization and even possible death,” Borchardt said. “It was overwhelming the positives in favor of disinfection for the cost, but you won’t see that in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s report.”

Research Hydrogeologist, Kenneth Bradbury

Research Hydrogeologist, Kenneth Bradbury

The study dealt with the most easily measured health outcome, acute gastrointestinal illness, commonly known as diarrhea. According to University of Wisconsin – Madison research hydrogeologist, Kenneth Bradbury, a high proportion of gastrointestinal illness can be contributed to drinking non-chlorinated water, but the illness is not terribly serious.

The Cumberland Municipal Utility agreed that the current water system does not pose a serious threat to those who drink it.

“If we were assured that we were putting our customers in danger of a health risk by not continuously chlorinating or disinfecting our water system, we would feel that we should take immediate action to correct it and not wait two to three years for the rule to take affect,” the Cumberland Municipal Utility said in a written statement.

Image from Borchardt's Environment Health Perspectives (2012)

Image from Borchardt’s Environment Health Perspectives (2012)

But Borchardt said gastrointestinal illness is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other critical illnesses may result that are more long-term.

“I’ve been dealing with some water issues in Door County and Towana County the last few months, and I’ve already met two people who had acute paralysis that’s been linked to an infection that likely came from their drinking water,” Borchardt said. “It’s a little scary when you wake up in the morning and can’t move.”

Bradbury said while sometimes gastrointestinal illness can be similar to the flu, there are classes of people, including the elderly and small children, who could face very serious medical consequences. Borchardt found similar results in a section of the study that looked specifically at children.

“We calculated about 60 percent of those kids that were ill, not 60 percent of children, but 60 percent of illnesses in kids less than five, were because of their drinking water,” Borchardt said. “We were so shocked by that finding when disinfection of water is a proven, simple technology in preventing waterborne disease.”

The Treasurer of the Village of Clear Lake, Albert Bannink, said in a written statement that making these changes are anything but simple. He said it would create a financial hardship on its residents, especially on the largest employer in Clear Lake, Advanced Food Products, which employs 125 people from the community.

“When they are in full production mode, they will use over a million gallons of water per day,” Bannink said. “The addition of disinfection agents to the water will have an adverse effect on them. They will have to remove the disinfection agents to run expensive tests to determine its effect on their food products.”

Borchardt said these expenses are worth it, especially if you look at the history of disinfection in the United States. He said people forget the horrors of infectious disease and death, despite big outbreaks in Wisconsin.

The need for more proof

Hydrogeologist, Madeline Gotkowitz

Hydrogeologist, Madeline Gotkowitz

Both Borchardt and UW – Madison hydrogeologist, Madeline Gotkowitz, recalled a big outbreak of a severe waterborne disease in Milwaukee in 1993. According to Borchardt, 400,000 people became ill and 12 people died.

“There was just another big outbreak in Door County I wrote about that had 229 people sick, six hospitalizations and nearly one death,” Borchardt said. “So these waterborne disease outbreaks aren’t disappearing. If anything, it’s getting worse.”

But communities like the Village of Hammond said in a written statement that more research should have been conducted before the DNR authorized such a drastic response. Gotkowitz said it could always be reassuring to see more than one study, especially because Borchardt’s work is currently the only groundwater-borne study in the world.

“I think that when you think about whether or not this rule should be changed at a federal level to help out everybody in the country, and not just in Wisconsin, then you think this is something that may happen over time, as more studies are completed,” Gotkowitz said.

Borchardt said he and his colleagues are not doing anything to encourage people to disinfect their water except continuing to work on groundwater issues in the state. Bradbury agreed that they did their part, and communicated what they found, but it is now up to the decision-makers to make any changes.

“As a scientist, you feel an ethical and moral obligation to tell people what you’ve found,” Bradbury said. “It would be nice if they took some action based on that.”