Interior Health says the amount of resources it takes to monitor over 1,500 water systems in the region is a major factor in the potential for a disease outbreak in one of the area’s water systems.
IH has released a comprehensive report regarding the state of the region’s drinking water systems that identified risks to public health, and made recommendations for improving drinking water safety.
When it comes to the potential for an outbreak, IH says there is a dangerous reliance on public advisories to alert people to potential outbreaks, pointing out that many water systems are deficient in the region. The report states that there are not regular outbreaks where thousands of people get sick, however that “does not mean that improvements to drinking water systems are not necessary.”
The report included all 1,454 small water systems and 133 large water systems regulated by Interior Health’s drinking water program and reviewed them over the span of 10 years (2006-2016). IH says the majority of the systems rely on surface water, a source that is the most likely to carry pathogenic microrganisms due to the exposure to plant, animal and human activities.
“Across IH, roughly one-third of small water systems, two-thirds of large water systems, and one quarter of First Nations systems use a surface water source, or a groundwater source that is under the direct influence of surface water, such as a shallow well,” states the report.
“Disease levels are kept low, despite the abundance of surface water sources treated only with chlorination, by a dangerous over-reliance on public advisories. The risk of this over-reliance can be attributed to consumers suffering from information fatigue and potentially ignoring advisories, and the significant IH resources needed to closely monitor so many deficient systems.”
Contamination of water can happen in at multiple points from source to tap, said IH. It can be microbiological and caused by bacteria, chemical which is caused by heavy metals that occur naturally or physical, from such things as turbidity.
The last large outbreaks of waterborne disease in IH were in 1996 and 1997, when there were two separate outbreaks of Cryptosporidiosis and one outbreak of Norovirus. The first Cryptosporidiosis outbreak in 1996 was in Cranbrook, and was estimated to have affected more than 2,000 people. The second, in Kelowna, caused an estimated 10,000 illnesses.
The 1997 Norovirus outbreak in Princeton impacted an estimated 88 per cent of the the population. These large outbreaks were the direct result of contaminated water supplies due to inadequate disinfection of source waters.
Among the report’s recommendations is a more collaborative engagement process with water operators and First Nations communities, to ensure sustainable improvements are made and provincial water treatment objectives are achieved by 2025. This could include upgrades to water treatment facilities, improved source protection, and the development of response plans to help protect public health during unexpected situations.
There were six recommendations forwarded in the report, most of which included working with the different water suppliers as well as with First Nations, the Ministry of Health and local partners to development a coordinated management approach and combined planning efforts.
“Nearly half of all the water systems in B.C. are located within Interior Health,” said Dr. Trevor Corneil, VP population health & chief medical health officer. “As such, we take our role as regulator of both small and large systems very seriously.”
The report looked at a variety of public health concerns related to drinking water, including public advisories issued as a result of elevated risk of water-borne illnesses. The report states that while public advisories can help alert the public to risks, the reliance on advisories and notifications alone to keep people safe is not enough, with significant potential risks in the long term. In some cases, over-reliance on advisories and notifications has negatively impacted planning and investment for infrastructure improvements that would have ensured the delivery of safe drinking water at all times.
“This report should be viewed as an opportunity to renew and rejuvenate conversations between drinking water officers, water supply managers, municipal leaders, and members of the community,” said Dr. Corneil, “An opportunity to ensure we are moving forward, together, towards a common goal: Access to clean, safe, and reliable tap water for all people at all times.”
Along with the report’s release, IH is also launching a public awareness campaign to provide information and a better understanding of drinking water systems and their challenges. This includes a web page http://drinkingwaterforeveryone.ca/ and a series of educational videos that provide information on how the water systems work, how water is treated, and what safety issues the community should be aware of.
A full copy of the report, Drinking Water in Interior Health, can be found here.