Wisconsin Rolling the Dice by Rolling Back Mandatory Disinfection

Wisconsin is about to roll the dice on public health by rolling back a state rule requiring municipal governments to disinfect drinking water [GOP proposes rollback of mandatory disinfection for drinking water].  The current rule protects the safety of drinking water for 12 percent of Wisconsin’s municipal water supply systems in some of the state’s smaller communities.  Repealing the rule would mean that approximately 220,000 residents could be exposed to water that has not been disinfected.  The proponents of the rule’s repeal cite budget concerns.

This is a mistake.  Experience has shown us that the costs of not disinfecting drinking water are measured in much more than just dollars and cents.

In 2008, the city of Alamosa, Colorado suffered a waterborne disease outbreak that killed one person and sickened more than 1,300 of the town’s 8,900 residents. Prior to the outbreak, Alamosa, armed with a state disinfection waiver, chose not chlorinate its water.  A state report following an investigation determined that animal waste likely contaminated a compromised holding tank, leading to the outbreak.  Routine drinking water chlorination would have prevented this outbreak. Since 2008, the Colorado health department has withdrawn more than half of the disinfection waivers statewide and today Alamosa is chlorinating its drinking water.

Eleven years ago in Walkerton, Ontario, seven people died and more than 2,300 became ill after E. coli and other bacteria infected the town’s water supply. A report published by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General concluded that, even after the well was contaminated, the Walkerton disaster could have been prevented if the required chlorine residuals had been maintained.

These two cities learned the hard way that waterborne diseases don’t just go away – they must be eradicated by using disinfecting agents like chlorine.  Handing out disinfection waivers is the equivalent of giving waterborne diseases a free pass into thousands of Wisconsin homes.  A little chlorination goes a long way toward wiping out some of the nastiest bugs including E. coli and salmonella.

During the 20th century, the dramatic increase in life span from 49 years to 76 years is widely credited to public health achievements, including the control of infectious diseases through the chlorination of drinking water. Safe drinking water has saved lives and lessened the burden of disease on millions of people, especially children in the country.  We understand budgets are tight, but any savings that can be achieved by not disinfecting water could easily be offset by higher healthcare costs associated with treating Wisconsin residents with waterborne diseases and, even worse, any potential lives lost.

More than a billion people around the world have no access to safe drinking water through their public infrastructure.  For them, it’s not a voluntary gamble; they simply have no choice.  There’s no excuse for choosing to add more than 200,000 Wisconsin residents to their ranks.

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.