Public Health Crisis in America’s Dairy State

According to a report in the Wisconsin Gazette, a very large number of private water wells are contaminated with viruses mostly derived from cow manure. The Wisconsin Gazette report shows that between 2007 and 2010, an estimated 18 percent of 3,868 private wells in Wisconsin tested positive for coliform bacteria (an indicator of disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites) by researchers with the state Department of Health Services. That translates into as many as 169,200 of the 940,000 Wisconsin households served by private wells exposed to disease-causing pathogens.

The problem also plagues municipal water systems where coliform bacteria accounts for most of the violations of health standards recorded each year. The 2014 Department of Natural Resources drinking water report on the state’s public water systems found 3.7%, or 420 of the 11,420 systems, had detectable levels of coliform. The report said those 420 systems serve about 92,290 people. Most of the violations, 351,were in small public water systems serving motels, restaurants, churches and campgrounds throughout the State.

Water contamination by pathogens is of special concern because unlike contamination by metals or chemicals, pathogens can sicken people after just a single exposure. The gastrointestinal illnesses that result can be life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems such as the sick, elderly and infants. Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites are the most frequent causes of illnesses in private water systems, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether it was cow manure spread irresponsibly on a frozen field, a septic system compromised by pollution-prone geology or untreated municipal drinking water, incidents of pathogens in drinking water in Wisconsin have revealed weaknesses in government oversight of the State’s water resources, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found.

Furthermore, recent testing funded by the DNR and carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh showed the extent of the problem in Kewaunee County, with more than one-third of the 320 wells tested found unsafe to use. Those 110 wells had unsafe levels of coliform, E. coli or nitrate.

Any amount of coliform is considered unsafe. Of the wells found to be unsafe by the DNR testing, 27 percent had coliform; and five wells, or 2 percent, were contaminated by E. coli, which can come from human or animal waste. The second phase of the study will show the exact source of the pollutants.

Kewaunee County is home to 20,574 people and 76,000 cows, according to county data. It has one of Wisconsin’s highest concentrations of large dairy farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. Such farms, which have up to 8,000 head of cattle, can produce as much feces as a city, and most of it ends up on nearby farm fields.

Kewaunee County’s 16 CAFOs contribute the bulk of the more than 555 million gallons of liquid manure that are spread on the county’s fields each year, county figures show.

The likelihood that manure from such large farms will contain one or more pathogens is “very high;’ according to the EPA because of the sheer number of animals housed in such operations.

Manure is a veritable stew of more than 150 pathogens that can make people sick, according to a report from the National Association of Local Boards of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These pathogens include E. coli, Salmonella, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. All can cause severe diarrhea and can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems. Infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are HIV-positive and those who have undergone chemotherapy – about 20 percent of the U.S. population – are most at risk.

Many users of private wells may be ingesting pathogens unknowingly because, according to the state health department, only about 16 percent of owners statewide have them tested.

Read the full story at Wisconsin Gazette


May 24, 2016

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