More E. coli cases appear in Lehi; city taking steps to treat irrigation water
Lehi continues to see an increase in E. coli, with 12 people now confirmed to have contracted the bacterial infection, though officials at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting acknowledged the possibility of two new cases.
Two of the cases were contracted by Orem residents while they were in Lehi. The 12 cases are all among children, of which six were hospitalized, though all reportedly have been released. The cause of the E. coli cases has been traced to the city’s pressurized irrigation water.
Compared to the city population, this many cases is considered a large outbreak, according to Cindy Burnett, a program manager at the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. She said it is estimated that there could be 150-200 people in the city who contracted E. coli and got sick but were not hospitalized.
These cases have been caused by using pressurized irrigation, or PI, water for drinking or recreation. Running through sprinklers, playing in puddles from a pipe bursting in the backyard and drinking from a hose were some of the ways reported that the children contracted E. coli.
PI water is not meant to be used as drinking water for humans or animals, as it is untreated and has harmful bacteria in it.
According to the Utah County Health Department, E. coli symptoms include bloody or persistent diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting. Anyone with symptoms is encouraged to contact their health care provider for testing.
Watering lawns and recreation
According to Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that PI water be turned off. However, he said, if that happened, 41 fire hydrants would also be shut down as they are sourced by the PI water.
A Lehi City press release said the CDC “has recommended that residents not water their lawns. Do not use irrigation water for bounce houses, pools, slip-n-slides, or any other recreational activities.” Children or adults who have touched irrigation water and then touch food they eat or touch something that will reach their mouth are at risk to contract E. coli, the city said.
In addition, Lehi City said it is not only the water that can be dangerous, but also lawns that were watered by the irrigation water, even if they are not wet. “Use caution when allowing children to play on lawns that have been watered with irrigation water,” the city warned. “Keep an eye on them when they’re outside playing and make sure they don’t put their hands or anything else that might be on the lawn in their mouths. E. coli is hardy and can stick around even when the lawn isn’t wet. After they play, make sure you wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water.”
The Alpine School District said in a statement it had been in “close contact” with Lehi City last weekend and sent a message to administrators and maintenance crews at schools in the area to inform them about the outbreak and propose a temporary pause on watering. However, the district said, “In some school field areas, watering is necessary because extracurricular activities need to be played on (and safety of the grounds necessitates not having dry field that could increase the potential of a fall injury greater if the field is full of dead grass), and as that was discussed.”
“Our decision was to follow best practices and ideal watering times for the process to be be addressed,” it concluded.
The initial recommendation for produce that is watered by PI water was to thoroughly wash before eating. That has changed to a recommendation that all produce exposed to pressurized irrigation water should be thoroughly cooked or canned before it is consumed.
When handling produce or soil that has been wetted by PI water, hands also should be thoroughly washed.
Whether or not farm produce is safe to eat has not been discussed, said Jeanteil Livingston, Lehi City communications manager. However, any produce that is watered by PI water is at risk of being contaminated.
Lehi City has been working with the CDC, Utah County Health Department and Utah Department of Health and Human Services. The Utah County Health Department is the lead on the E. coli outbreak. Lehi City shock treated two of the 14 PI water reservoirs on Monday but did not have enough chemicals to treat more. Members of the Lehi City Council reported they are working on getting more chemicals.
BreAnne Osborn, a disease epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, said to effectively treat E. coli, “The only way to make sure that it’s (PI water) safe for everybody to use for its intended purpose is continual treatment, and that’s not an easy thing.”
The strain of E. coli that has been found is E. coli O157, which is a strand that causes kidney failure, especially in young children, and can be life-threatening.
The city’s PI water is not regularly treated, so until there is a case of E. coli that is reported, the water is not tested. Osborn added that many bodies of water have strains of E. coli but many strains of the bacteria are not dangerous to humans. This means that tests that are run for the levels of E. coli in the water do not determine whether the dangerous strain of O157 is present in the water.
Lehi officials were first notified Aug. 2 by the Utah County Health Department of positive E. coli test results thought to be tied to the PI water system, though it wasn’t until Aug. 4 that Water Systems Manager Greg Allred was contacted to give permission to test the PI water reservoirs.
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, council members raised questions about the long duration between the water being tested and the information being relayed so the city could treat the water. Osborn said that due to medical privacy laws, they were not able to give out the addresses of the exposure sites since the people infected were contaminated at home.
After trying to balance the health risk posed to Lehi residents and wanting to maintain the privacy of those contaminated with E. coli, some information was given to Lehi City to treat the water, Osborn said. However, that information didn’t make it to the city until after the two sites had been chemically treated, and Johnson said Allred and his team had to make an educated guess about which were infected.
Once they received the information from the health department, they found out they had guessed correctly.
“I’m gonna say something. We failed because we have citizens who continue to let the kids play in the contaminated water,” Johnson said.
However, council member Katie Koivisto disagreed, saying that because Lehi is a city full of young parents and young adults, “I think this is just a learning experience, as harsh as that is. But it’s basically a learning experience because there were a lot of people that just didn’t know you’re not supposed to play in irrigation water.” She acknowledged that the city did need to educate residents better, but said there is also a side of recognizing the different demographic in Lehi.
Lehi City and the Utah County Health Department declined additional requests for comment.