Coliform bacteria found in elementary school’s drinking water

by Gus Burns, originally posted on May 5, 2016


LEONI TWP., MI — Nearly 500 students at East Jackson Elementary School are drinking crisp, clean water from cone paper cups.

That’s because the water supply to drinking fountains and sinks has shown signs of bacterial contamination. Water tested positive for potentially harmful coliform bacteria multiple times since March 18, most recently on Wednesday, May 4.

Administrators brought in dispensers and are providing purified water to students until the problem is corrected.

Nearly 11/2 months after first detecting the problem, East Jackson Community Schools, Jackson County Health Department and a third-party plumbing contractor haven’t isolated the cause of the recurring bacteria, said Jackson County Director of Environmental Services Don Hayduk.

Coliform bacteria is usually found in soil, vegetation, surface water and the intestines of warm-blooded animals, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“Because coliform bacteria are most commonly associated with sewage or surface waters, they are used as an indicator group to determine the sanitary quality of drinking water,” the DEQ says. “Most coliform bacteria do not cause illness. However, their presence in a water system is a public health concern because of the potential for disease-causing strains of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa to also be present.

“Waterborne disease from these organisms (including some strains of E. Colli) typically involves flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea.”

One of five samples collected Wednesday tested positive for coliform, Hayduk said.

The school is supplied by well water and sat vacant for six years before being renovated and returned to service this past school year, East Jackson Community Schools Superintendent Pat Little said Thursday.

Tests showed the water supply was safe when the school opened.

“Probably the biggest thing is we were being very proactive,” Little said. “I have not had a single complaint and kids are still getting hydrated.”

Protocol requires the school district inform parents when the school chlorinates its system in response to contamination.

Little said notices were first sent to parents after the positive tests March 18.

After flushing the system, tests 24 hours apart on March 20 and March 21 were negative for coliform, Hayduk said.

But it returned by the next set of tests conducted April 20. Since then, drinking fountains have been shut off and alternative drinking water available to students.

“We’re almost 100 percent sure it is in the piping system,” Hayduk said, “not the well.”

Despite chlorinating the system again in May, tests still show the presence of coliform. Hayduk said a couple possibilities — among others — are contamination when sections of plumbing were replaced or a “dead-end” section of pipe where the bacteria is accumulating.

He said it’s now a matter of repeating tests throughout the plumbing system to “narrow down” the source of coliform.

“As soon as possible” but “it’s hard to say,” Hayduk said when the issue might be resolved. “I don’t want to give an estimate.”

Hayduk says coliform is a “broad class” of bacteria that includes “hundreds of thousands” of species, most of which aren’t harmful. Health officials are testing for some of the harmful strains, including E. Coli.

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