Oak Bluffs boil water order extended; more bacteria found

Oak Bluffs residents picked up bottled water for drinking at the Oak Bluffs Library Monday night.
Photo by Steve Myrick

Oak Bluffs residents picked up bottled water for drinking at the Oak Bluffs Library Monday night.

Updated 9 pm, Tuesday

Oak Bluffs will remain under a boil water order until further notice, after additional test results received Tuesday evening showed bacteria contamination remains in the public water supply. The state had issued a boil water order Monday, after testing first revealed the bacterial contamination.

Two of the town’s five wells tested above the allowable levels for enterococci, a bacteria that indicates the probability of harmful bacteria that can cause illness, according to Oak Bluffs health agent Shirley Fauteaux and town administrator Bob Whritenour. Ms. Fauteaux is in close touch with Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials, who received test results Tuesday evening from samples taken Monday.

Water commissioner Michael deBettencourt, however, had conflicting information Monday night. He said it was not two wells that tested positive, but the Lagoon Pond Well, which was the source of the original positive test, and a faucet in the town’s Highway Department facility off Pennsylvania Avenue.

During a Tuesday meeting of emergency management officials, public safety officials and the town administrator, town officials had hoped the tests would show the water system is again safe for drinking.

“This is very disappointing,” said selectman Michael Santoro, who has participated in the daily meetings. “I don’t like it.”

Town officials also discussed the normal protocol for additional positive tests – to begin treating the water supply with chlorine, which kills the bacteria, then flush the entire system, and take more water samples. The tests take 24 hours to produce results.

That process could take at least another 48 hours.

But Mr. deBettencourt was hopeful the boil water order could be lifted sooner. He said DEP officials will visit Oak Bluffs tomorrow to oversee chlorination of the Lagoon Pond Well, and may only require that well be treated, before lifting the order.

Boil water order issued Monday

DEP issued a boil water order for Oak Bluffs Water District users Monday, after bacterial contamination of the town water supply was detected in multiple water samples.

Oak Bluffs selectmen held an emergency meeting at 12:30 pm Monday to discuss the DEP action. Following the meeting, the town used the Code Red emergency telephone/email notification system to alert residents to the order.

Oak Bluffs health officials described this as a relatively low level contamination. They stressed that the contamination is not e. coli, a bacteria that can cause much more serious illness.

“We’re fortunate, we’ve been told this is not the worst form of bacteria,” town administrator Bob Whritenour told The Times Monday afternoon. “The key issue is public information. What we’re trying to do is get this information out to local residents as fast as possible, and also get as much bottled water to local residents as soon as possible. That’s all we can really do.”

Town emergency management officials are working to transport emergency supplies of bottled water to the Island. There is expected be a limited supply. Town leaders ask that people take only enough water for drinking supplies and use boiled water for cooking and other uses.

Town officials have distributed hundreds of cases of bottled water over the past two days from a command center at the front door of the Oak Bluffs Public Library on Pacific Avenue.

Water distribution will continue on Wednesday.

The boil water order affects the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, hotels, inns and restaurants. Restaurants may not use water, ice made in house or soda guns until the order is lifted. The board of health is preparing notices to hand deliver to town businesses.

Tim Walsh, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital chief executive officer, said the hospital is following established procedures.

“The hospital prepares for emergencies regularly as part of our standard operating procedure,” Mr. Walsh said. “Thanks to a very capable staff, we were able to respond to the water crisis quickly and efficiently.”

The plan includes replacing all drinking water with bottled water, turning off and removing ice from all ice machines and the purchase of 250 pounds of ice from an Edgartown source. While additional bottled water supplies are on the way, the hospital keeps a minimum of 5 days drinking water for patients and staff on hand at all times.

The fact that the order only affects consumption of water has mitigated the amount of inconvenience and added work for the staff. “We’re okay,” Mr. Walsh said.

The water district identified the Lagoon Pond Well, which is fed by five separate, smaller wells, as the source of the contamination. That well is already off line, but water from that well was mixed into the entire water system before shut off.

DEP issued the boil water order after a raw water sample tested positive for enterococci and distribution samples tested positive for total coliform, according to the DEP website.

DEP advised water users, “Boil water at a rolling boil for one minute before using for any human consumption purpose or use bottled water from an alternate source.”

The DEP requires that, before it will lift a boil order, water tests taken on three consecutive days must show no bacteria.

Coliform bacteria are naturally present in the environment and are used by environmental officials as an indicator that other, potentially more harmful, bacteria may be present.

Water managers typically use chlorine to clean the water system. Chlorination kills coliform and other harmful bacteria. Flushing the system, primarily by opening hydrants throughout the town, draws the chlorination through the entire water infrastructure.

Frequently asked questions and answers from the DEP website

Are extra precautions necessary during a water-borne outbreak?

If the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), working with the MassDEP, determines that there is a water-borne disease outbreak, MassDEP and MassDPH will advise the PWS and consumers of any other precautions that are necessary.

Who can be affected?

Anyone who ingests contaminated water may become ill. Infants, young children, the elderly, and people with severely compromised immune systems are more at risk of illness.

Why must I boil my water?

A boil order has been issued to your water system because either recent testing has shown the presence of organisms that could cause illness (e.g. fecal or E. coli bacteria), or technical/physical problems in the water system have significantly increased the possibility of bacterial contamination.

How can I make my water safe?

Boiling the water is the best way to ensure that it is free of illness-causing organisms. Bring water to a rolling boil for a minimum of one minute. When it cools, refrigerate the water in clean containers. (A pinch of salt per quart may improve the rather flat taste of boiled water). If you do not want to boil your water, you can disinfect it by adding 1/8 teaspoon of bleach (common household bleach containing 5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite) per gallon of water. Do not use bleach containing perfume, dyes, or other additives.

Is it necessary to boil all water in the home during an advisory or order?

During boil water advisories or boil water orders, you should boil all water used for drinking, preparing food, beverages, ice cubes, washing fruits and vegetables, or brushing teeth. Severely immuno-compromised individuals should always boil their tap water for the purposes noted above. Infant formulas should be prepared using boiled tap water, at all times. In the event that boiling is not practical, the PWS may recommend an alternative supply known to be safe (e.g., bottled water) or may direct you to disinfect the water using household bleach.

It is not necessary to boil tap water used for other household purposes, such as showering, laundry, or bathing. Adults, teens, and older children can wash, bathe, or shower; however, they should avoid swallowing the water. Toddlers and infants should be sponge-bathed.

How should tap water be boiled properly?

Water should be placed in a heat-resistant container or in an electric kettle without an automatic shut-off and brought to a rolling boil for 1 minute to kill all disease-causing organisms.

Water can also be boiled in a microwave oven using a microwave-safe container, but it is advisable to include a glass rod or wooden or plastic stir stick in the container to prevent the formation of superheated water (water heated above its boiling point, without the formation of steam). The water should then be cooled and poured into a clean container or refrigerated until you are ready to use it.

At elevations over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) water boils at a slightly lower temperature and should therefore be boiled for at least two minutes to kill all disease-causing organisms.

I have a water treatment device; do I still need to boil my drinking water?

If the device is designed to improve the taste and odor or chemical quality of the water, such as activated carbon filters, it is still necessary to boil the water. Check with the manufacturer if you are not certain.

Can I use bottled water?

Buying bottled water may be a feasible alternative to boiling water. Bottled water operations are routinely inspected, and samples are periodically analyzed to ensure they meet health standards.

During a boil order, can I wash my hands using tap water?

It is recommended that you wash your hands using soap and either bottled water or boiled water. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer may also be used.

During a boil order, can my family take showers or baths using tap water?

The risk of bathing in tap water is uncertain and so should be avoided particularly by people with open wounds or who are immunocompromised. For those people who choose to shower or bathe in the tap water, minimize the time spent in the water and be sure to keep your eyes and mouth closed. Babies and young children should not bathe or shower in tap water because they often swallow some water accidentally.

During a boil order, can I wash dishes using tap water?

You may use a dishwasher if it has a sanitizing cycle. If it does not have a sanitizing cycle, or you are not sure if it does, you may hand wash dishes and utensils by following these steps:

1. Wash the dishes as you normally would. 2. As a final step, immerse the dishes for at least one minute in lukewarm water to which a teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water has been added. 3. Allow the dishes to completely air dry.

Can I use my coffee maker, ice machine, water or soda dispenser?

None of these devices should be used if they are directly connected to your water supply. Also, filters are unacceptable for removing bacteria. Once you have been notified that the boil order has been lifted, these devices should be cleaned and sanitized according to the operator’s manual for the device.

Can I give my pets tap water?

Although pets are not normally affected by the same diseases as humans, caution suggests giving pets boiled or bottled water.

What are the symptoms of water-borne illness?

Disease symptoms may include diarrhea, cramps, nausea and possible jaundice and associated headaches and fatigue. Symptoms may appear as early as a few hours to several days after infection and may last more than two weeks. These symptoms, however, are not just associated with disease-causing organisms in drinking water; they may also be caused by a number of other factors. If you are ill with these symptoms, contact your health care provider.

What if I drank the water already?

There is nothing you can do about the exposure you have already received. If you become ill, contact your health care provider. Follow the above recommendations about using your water until you are told the water is safe again.

How long will the boil order remain in effect?

Each boil order situation is different, making it impossible to predict how long the boil order will remain in effect. It will not be lifted until testing shows that the water meets public health standards. Boil water advisories or boil water orders are lifted by the MassDEP when the water is considered safe and no longer poses a threat to public health.

What should I do when the boil water advisory or order has been lifted?

The MassDEP and PWS will provide specific instructions. Consumers should flush water pipes within the home. When flushing it is important to carefully follow the instructions provided. Some types of water treatment devices may need to be disinfected and flushed to remove any contaminated water before being used. Depending on the type of water treatment device, the device may need to be replaced. Check with the manufacturer for details.