Campylobacter Bacteria Found in Utah Drinking Water

Last month, the City of Saratoga Springs, Utah, issued a boil water order for the northern half of the city after Campylobacter bacteria were discovered in the city’s drinking water system. At least 15 people became ill with confirmed Campylobacteriosis, and the Utah County Health Department received additional reports of illness including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps consistent with Campylobacter infection.

On May 13, city officials issued the order advising residents, schools, commercial businesses, and all other users of the drinking water system to boil their water for at least one minute or use bottled water while measures were taken to flush the water system of any pathogens from the system.

Health Department officials flushed the drinking water system the following day and added chlorine to kill any remaining bacteria, conducted testing for coliform bacteria, and lifted the boil order on May 15 after test results came back negative for bacteria.

According to Dr. Joseph Miner of the Utah County Health Department, the outbreak coincided with the city turning on the pressurized irrigation system but no cause of the outbreak has been determined. Most likely, a cross contamination occurred between the drinking water and irrigation water systems.

The city’s municipal water system is supplied by five deep wells that are considered protected, and the city does not routinely chlorinate its water. However, such a system is still at risk for contamination and many communities are frequently surprised by pathogenic contamination from cross connections, faulty maintenance, transient low pressure, loss of system integrity, interruption of pressure, or unanticipated contamination of the wells due to the lack of chlorine protection. City officials are considering installing a permanent chlorination system to prevent this from happening in the future and should be commended for taking such swift action to deal with the outbreak.

This incident in Utah reminds us of the salmonella outbreak that contaminated the drinking water supply in March 2008 in Alamosa, Colorado and sickened over 1,300 residents. These examples illustrate the importance of properly maintaining water storage and distribution equipment. Inspecting water supply equipment frequently is essential. In addition, most U.S. water systems employ chlorine-based disinfectants for residual protection from waterborne disease throughout the distribution system.

For more information about the safety benefits of chlorinated water, please visit our website.

(Chris Wiant, M.P.H., Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Caring for Colorado Foundation. He is also chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.)