April 30, 2013

Boil-water notices designed as precautionary measure


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Boil-water orders are a common occurrence across the North Country, but they are a necessary precaution against possible problems with public-water supplies.

In 2011, the Clinton County Health Department alone issued 90 boil-water orders. That number dropped to 80 in 2012, but 18 issues had been ordered through March of this year.

“We’ve developed within the department plans for when it’s appropriate to order boil-water notices,” said Judy Ross, senior public-health sanitarian for the Clinton County Health Department.

“The most common situation is when there is a water-line break.”

The break itself is not the main concern, Ross said, but if work crews cannot repair the break without losing pressure in the water line, then the boil-water notice is used as a precautionary measure.

“If the pipe is repaired under pressure, then chlorine disinfectant levels are maintained,” she said. “If they lose pressure, that could potentially cause a backflow, and contaminants could be sucked back into the system.”

The order is not issued in response to the detection of high levels of contaminants, but the order is not lifted until two subsequent tests come back with acceptable levels, Ross noted.

“It is definitely a precautionary measure,” she repeated, adding that at least 90 percent of all boil-water notices are precautionary and not a result of specific tests.

Municipalities are responsible for contacting the Health Department in the event of a water-line break and ensuing loss of pressure.

Many of those situations are actually part of planned repairs to water lines when the municipality knows the system will temporarily be losing power, Ross explained.

The municipality is also responsible for announcing the boil-water notice publicly, usually through the radio or newspaper.

Tests for coliform are taken at 24-hour intervals when work is completed. Coliform, a bacteria found in human and animal waste, acts as a marker to confirm that contaminants have entered the system and have not been removed through disinfection.

Another less-common cause for boil-water notices is a lack of disinfectant in the water supply. This is often a result of a malfunction in the disinfection-delivery system.

“We don’t know if water has been affected by the malfunction, but the boil-water notice is again used as a precautionary measure,” Ross said.

Residents obviously have the final say as to whether they will boil water when an order is issued, but the Health Department can require regulated facilities, such as restaurants, to adhere to the order and refrain from using tap water for ice and drinking water unless water is boiled, she added.

A water supply contaminated by coliform or other materials can be especially harmful to children, the elderly and pregnant women, Ross noted.

Boil-water orders typically include instructions for people to help maintain a healthy water supply during the notice.

Ross often receives calls from the public asking for information on whether their home is included in a particular order, but it would be more advisable to call the municipality, she said, because the Health Department will not have the specific boundary for a given water supply.

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Public-health officials recommend that consumers take the following precautions during a boil-water notice:

▶ Water used for drinking, making ice, as an additive or mixer for all foods should be brought to a rolling boil for one minute prior to use.

▶ Another alternative is to drink bottled water, certified by the New York State Department of Health.

▶ Water used to rinse dishes should have 2 teaspoons of 5 percent liquid bleach per gallon of water for proper disinfection.

▶ Residents do not need to take special precautions with recipes in which water is normally boiled.

▶ Coffee and tea can be made safely if water is boiled during preparation.

▶ Water can safely be used for bathing and washing clothes.

▶ Water can be used for gardening as long as fruits and vegetables are washed with boiled water or water from an approved source before consumption.

▶ Household pets can continue drinking the water since they are usually more tolerant of bacteria.

▶ Individuals with symptoms of illness may wish to seek medical attention.