Milwaukee Still Wary Over Water Scare


Delilah Bates’ face tightens into a grimace. Every time she looks at the tap of her sink, she remembers.

A year ago, she and more than 403,000 other Milwaukee-area residents were sickened when they drank water contaminated with a parasite. And now, she says, she refuses to drink water straight from the tap. Ever.

“Sometimes I buy bottled water, sometimes I boil the water and then freeze it,” said the 29-year-old nurse. “I just don’t want to take any more chances of getting sick.”

Last spring, an inadequate treatment process allowed cryptosporidium to pass through one of Milwaukee’s two water purification plants and into water mains. For a week in April, the 800,000 people relying on the municipal water supply were told to boil their drinking water.


It was, and still is, the nation’s largest waterborne disease outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Healthy people who developed cryptosporidiosis got diarrhea and stomach cramps, but the parasite’s effects were lethal for some with such conditions as AIDS or advanced cancer.

The outbreak contributed--at least indirectly--to the deaths of more than 100 people, city epidemiologist Kathleen Fessler estimated.

It cost more than $54 million, much of it in lost productivity and money spent on hospitalization. At least 1,419 lawsuits are pending against the city.


Little-known before the Milwaukee outbreak, cryptosporidium has surfaced elsewhere since. Boil orders were issued in Washington, D.C., last December and twice in Racine, Wis., this year after health officials detected possible contamination in those cities’ water supplies. No one got ill in either city.

But in Wisconsin, cryptosporidium’s effects are still felt.

“It kind of shatters your faith a little,” said Richard Morris, 44, an Internal Revenue Service employee in Milwaukee who said he tries to drink bottled water, but sometimes still uses the tap.

“I mean, isn’t our water supposed to be safe?” he said.


“I think (the outbreak) pushed a lot of people over the edge,” said Joel Burbach, general manager of the Artesian Water Co., a local bottled water distributorship. “The water supply’s been a joke for years and now they’re finally telling us about it.”

Bottled water deliveries from his distributorship increased tenfold during the outbreak, he said, and are still about four times higher than they were last year.

“People used to say . . . we have the best water right outside our doorstep,” Burbach said. “They don’t say that anymore.”

An estimated 15% of Milwaukee residents regularly boil their drinking water, according to a recent survey by the Milwaukee Journal.


Nearly one-fourth of Milwaukee County residents still think the tap water in their homes is unsafe, according to survey. Thirty-eight percent said they buy bottled water for drinking.

The outbreak left more than just memories of upset stomachs and empty containers of bottled water. For Christopher Fons and dozens of others, cryptosporidium’s effects were permanent.

Because AIDS had weakened his immune system, Fons was unable to fight off cryptosporidiosis. He has been left permanently debilitated by the infection.

If he makes it through the night without a bowel movement--a rare event--he is stricken with repeated bouts of cramps, vomiting and diarrhea throughout most of the day, he said.


He spends most days on a couch, unable to muster the energy to even leave the house.

“It’s become a constant in my life,” he said. “I’ve done everything I can, but I’m not ever going to be active again.”

At least 82 AIDS patients died as a result of complications arising from cryptosporidiosis, said Tim Kennedy of the Milwaukee AIDS project.

Another 38 still suffer some effects, he said.


Health officials estimate that at least 22 people other than AIDS patients may have died because of the parasite, said Dr. Charles Brummitt, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee.

AIDS patients, the elderly and people who had other serious health problems made up most of the fatal or debilitating cases, Brummitt said.