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Long Beach residents seek answers at forum after E. coli scare

Officials say discovery that led to a boil-water alert was an ‘isolated’ incident

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Local residents expressed their concerns to a panel of state, county and local officials at a public forum at City Hall on July 24 — a month after E. coli was detected in the city’s drinking water.

The contamination was found at a home on Grand Boulevard following what officials called routine testing of the city’s water, which prompted the Nassau County Department of Health to issue a boil-water alert on June 21. The alert was lifted three days later, after additional testing determined that the water was safe and the city increased chlorine levels to kill any lingering bacteria.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky announced on July 11 that officials would update residents at the forum about the state of the city’s drinking water.

The panel of experts — John Mirando, Long Beach Public Works commissioner; Brad Hutton, deputy state commissioner of public health; Lawrence Eisenstein, Nassau County health commissioner; Don Irwin, county health director of environmental programs; and Paul Ponturo, a senior water resources engineer for H2M, the company hired by the city to conduct an independent assessment of the city’s water quality — attempted to ease residents’ concerns at the forum.

They gave a brief presentation detailing protocols taken after the positive sample was found — conducting additional testing, investigating the source and logging the positive sample into a national database to determine any relationship to another outbreak — as well as recommendations from the state and county health departments on ways to avoid future contamination.

The city’s drinking water comes from eight wells that pump water from the Lloyd Aquifer to the water purification plant on Park Place. Throughout the year, the city conducts more than 5,000 water quality tests for over 130 different contaminants. Following the boil-water alert, Mirando said, 55 tests for E. coli were conducted, and all came back negative.

Mirando spoke about the possible source of the positive E. coli sample, noting that it was an isolated incident and not a system-wide problem. Though officials have not yet determined the source of the bacteria, Mirando said that a filtration system in the home where the positive sample was found may be the source. Irwin encouraged homeowners to properly maintain their filtration systems in order to keep bacteria out of them.

“The residence where the only sample tested positive for E. coli had a water filter. Sometimes water filters are a bed for bacteria,” Mirando said. “Negative samples from wells and the [the city’s water treatment plant] indicate that this was not from the supply source or caused by the operation of the treatment plant.”

Health officials maintain that they have no confirmed cases of E. coli-related illnesses caused by the water. “To this day, there have not been any cases tied to any samples of E. coli in this water system,” Eisenstein said. He added that Long Beach had two confirmed cases of E. coli and one probable case since the beginning of the year, but none were related to the city’s water.

Some residents who spoke at the forum, however, said that they or family members had had symptoms associated with E. coli, such as diarrhea and dehydration. Others questioned the county’s number of confirmed E. coli cases.

“We acknowledge with any illness there’s a certain percentage that don’t seek medical attention,” Eisenstein said. “We understand that. The numbers aren’t perfect. All we can report on is the number we can confirm. I’ve never said that no one has gotten sick from the water. What I said was we haven’t confirmed any cases.”

Alexis Pace, a Long Beach parent who spoke to reporters before a news conference on June 24 — when officials lifted the boil-water alert — had said that her 12-year-old daughter, Kaya, was diagnosed that day with toxins that are associated with an E. coli infection. She claimed that her daughter became ill from the city’s drinking water.

At the forum, however, Pace said that county health officials had determined that Kaya’s E. coli infection was food-borne, and not related to the water. “I thought it was a public health crisis and was concerned we had a positive test during a boil-water notice,” she told the panel.

Still, Pace expressed concern about how officials handled the boil-water alert and the protocols put in place after she reported her daughter’s illness. She and other residents also claimed that people with symptoms of E. coli were denied tests to confirm whether the bacteria had caused their illness at local medical facilities, including South Nassau Communities Hospital’s emergency department in Long Beach, CityMD and NYU Winthrop Hospital.

“It was my mother that was turned away at South Nassau,” Long Beach resident Keri Carrol said. “The nurse intake said, ‘We are not testing for E. coli.’”

County Legislator Denise Ford called for an investigation into the allegations. “If South Nassau, if City MD or Winthrop failed to follow protocol, I expect them to be investigated,” Ford said. “I want to make sure that if we have a system like this, that these hospitals are on high alert.”

South Nassau spokesman Joe Calderone said that two patients were treated for their symptoms at the hospital’s Long Beach emergency department. He added that one patient was tested for E. coli and the results came back negative.

“If someone had tested positive with E. coli, that would’ve been reported to the county and state health department,” Calderone said. “Every hospital is required to report that kind of case. Everyone who presented at our emergency department was treated appropriately.”

Brown water was also a topic of concern. Phyllis Hoffman and other residents asked the panel why their water was brown, and what the health implications were. According to the city’s website, 650 hydrants are flushed in the fall and spring to remove iron deposits and sediment from the system, which can cause temporary discoloration or low water pressure. Mirando said that the discolored water did not pose a health threat, and added that the water system was flushed for two days during the E. coli outbreak to eliminate any possible bacteria.

“It’s not aesthetically nice to drink,” he said, “but there is nothing dangerous about it.”

Still, some residents said they were not convinced. “Having water coming out of the tap that’s the color of your chair — none of you guys on this panel will convince me that that’s normal,” said Tim Kramer, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in the June Democratic primary.