Water-related Illness at Home

If Janisse Ray was ‘poetry on fire’, Marc Gorelick was science on fire. Last Monday night, to a crowd of about 40 river lovers (aka, supporters of Milwaukee Riverkeeper®), Marc presented an overview of his research on whether or not the quality of our water and our infrastructure are making kids sick. You wouldn’t necessarily think that an after-dinner presentation on enteroviruses, sewers, diarrhea, and fecal contamination would deserve the ‘on fire’ description, but the crowd was glued to their seats, eyes concentrating on his slides, for the entire 45 minutes presentation. In fact, he packed so much into the presentation that it might more accurately be described as ‘science from the fire hose’.

Marc is emergency pediatrician who, for the last eleven years, has led the emergency program at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. His hospital, as well as his E.R. program specifically, regularly ranks among the top children’s hospitals in the nation. He also happens to be my husband, but that part of the story will wait for another day. About six years ago Gorelick, who was already known as a leader in the realm of diagnosing dehydration and GI-related illnesses, began to wonder whether or not sewer overflows or the practice of sewage blending might be making kids sick. Working in partnership with Milwaukee Riverkeeper® and scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he began a methodical investigation into this question.

His research is published in academic journals that generally charge for on-line access, but I think I can capture the essence of what he was telling us. He’s now got about six years of data that very clearly show an increase in GI-related visits to his emergency room four days after a rainfall event, and the number of visits increases with more rainfall. Four days makes sense to Marc – that’s the incubation period for many of the pathogens that cause GI illness. But the illnesses are not directly tied to sewer overflows. Sewer problems are tied to rainfall events, but kids seem to get sick even when there is no sewer overflows or blending events.
The story gets a little more detailed than I have capacity for at present, but in a nutshell, the research line has two tracks. One is for the people who get their water from Milwaukee Water Works, which withdraws its water from far offshore in Lake Michigan and treats it to high standards before sending it through the distribution system. For these people (i.e. me) the hypothesis he’s now testing is that on rainy days the water is contaminated after it leaves the treatment plant and is pumped through the pipes toward our houses. You’ve heard of decaying infrastructure, right? Well, if the water pipes are decaying (like ours was, finally resulting in a small geyser in our front yard last summer), contamination could get in and degrade the water quality. Marc’s work focuses on the Milwaukee area, but theoretically this could be happening in just about any city.
For people on well water, Marc’s observations aren’t much better. In fact, people relying on well water in this region are more likely to be contaminated even in dry weather. He shared some of the results from his colleague, Mark Borchardt (see also last spring’s blog entry on Borchardt) that indicate viruses can get into wells, even deep wells that drill into confined aquifers deep below the surface. Borchardt’s research is now focusing on whether or not adding UV treatment to small, municipal treatment facilities results in less contamination and less illness – we look forward to getting those results when they are available.
So, should we be drinking bottled water instead? Marc has looked into this as well, and found that generally bottled water does NOT provide a protection against GI illnesses, and on most days is actually worse (not to mention, more expensive) than relying on municipal water.
Heading off the inevitable question, Marc told the crowd that yes, he is absolutely confident in the local water and that at our house we drink plenty of water. But he did admit that, if he knows it’s going to rain he will sometimes fill a water bottle or two with pre-rain water, just to be careful. Or he resorts to the method used in generations past – having a beer instead!
So, why does a busy guy like Marc take time to talk with citizen groups like the one assembled last Monday? Marc cares deeply about the health and safety of his fellow travelers on this planet, as well as the water we all depend on. And so, when he committed to help promote the recommendations in Charting New Waters he stated that he would give public presentations on his results. Marc, thanks for keeping your commitment! If you are interested in learning more about Marc’s work, you may reach him at mgorelic @ chw.edu (note that I’ve intentionally left spaces in his address).
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