Bacteria Contamination in the Tap Water of a High-Rise Apartment
Updated: Jun 5, 2019
Bacteria contamination in the tap water of a high rise apartment in Netanya: A single incident or a national problem?
I live in a 10-year-old apartment building in South Netanya with 22 floors. Apartments over five floors high require that the drinking water enter a swimming-pool like reservoir at the lowest level of the building from the water company. The water is then pumped to a second reservoir at the top of the building and then pumped down, with the help of gravity, to all the apartments in the building. Maintaining the sanitation of the reservoirs and the pumps must be done regularly to prevent dangerous water-borne bacteria contamination that can cause illness to anyone who uses the water.
About two weeks ago, I filled a pot from the tap water to boil eggs and was shocked to see a reddish-brown, opaque liquid filling the pot. I ran the tap water for at least 15 minutes until the colored water was clear and colorless. I was happy to see that my Doulton ceramic filtered water that flows from a separate tap, was still clean, colorless and without any foul odor or taste. Shortly after this incident a resident complained to the Vaad (board of the building) and the management company that the tap water had a taste problem.
As a result of that complaint a notice appeared on November 15, 2018 inside our elevators and on the lobby walls as follows: “ In a laboratory test conducted in the water reservoirs in the building, it was found that the water was not suitable for drinking. We recommend that you avoid drinking tap water. If so — boil the water! The reservoirs will be disinfected on 11/21. Thank you for your understanding.
Understanding what? Why was a 22-floor building, filled with 200 residents including babies and the elderly, exposed to water that was “not suitable for drinking.” Even though I was protected by my drinking water filtration system, I still had to shower, brush my teeth, wash my face and hands with tap water that was not safe to be ingested. My first thoughts were how long has the pollution of our drinking water existed, what pollutants were we exposed to, and how did this happen to a relatively new apartment building.
I decided to use my chemistry background and professional training as a pharmacist, with my knowledge gained through my years of experience in the water-filter business providing safe drinking water in Israel, to investigate the facts of this occurrence.
I started my investigation by reviewing the original laboratory test sent to the management company of our building that showed that the contaminated reservoirs in the building were contaminated with non-specific coliform bacteria. The report dated 11/14/2018 reports that the upper reservoir on the roof tested 85 coliform, the lower level too numerous to count. This test examines water samples for indicator bacteria, in this case non-specific coliform bacteria, with which the sample was filled beyond counting. For every 100 ml of drinking water no coliform bacteria should be detected. The presence of coliform bacteria indicates the degree of pollution and sanitary quality of the water. Within the general description of coliform bacteria could be disease causing pathogens, such as E.coli, commonly found in the fecal material of various animals and humans. In our case, there was no additional testing performed from the sample to determine which specific bacteria was present. All we know is that a contamination of non-specific coliform bacteria developed in our reservoirs, but the cause is not yet known. The private laboratory that was sent by the management company reported 0.7 turbidity (clarity), 0.1 chlorine (range 0.2-0.3) and a high level of non-specific coliform bacteria. High turbidity is a factor in reducing the chlorine levels.
All of these findings required an immediate response to properly clean and disinfect the reservoirs. I was concerned that the management company posted a cleaning date for November 21, 2018 which was 7 days later. No shower for 7 days? Boil water for 7 days? Be exposed to non-specific coliform bacteria for 7 days? Our protests brought the cleaning date to the 19th of November, 2 days sooner. I witnessed the dark, opaque pool of water in the the lower reservoir and observed the cleaning process. I wondered how many people who were not using an effective water filtration like ours became ill from drinking the water. There are so many possibilities as to why and how this contamination occurred and I was determined to find the answers.
One of the reasons for the contamination could have been that the water company pumped coliform bacteria into our reservoirs water with high turbidity and low chlorine levels. Another reason could have been that the management company failed to clean and sanitize the drinking water reservoirs in the building in a timely manner. Lastly, that fecal contamination from animals or birds, or dust from the air may have entered the system through a break or opening in the walls or foundation of the reservoir, the vents or through the water covers of the reservoirs. The last reason would have been the easiest one to prove if the laboratory had made an effort to determine the presence of pathogenic bacteria in the general finding of coliform bacteria.
I began to explore the reasons for the contamination by first questioning the management company who was responsible for the cleaning and disinfection of the reservoirs by asking them how often did they inspect and sanitize the reservoirs. I asked to see the past work orders, and the reported results of the cleaning and disinfection process and the lab reports that tested the reservoirs for coliform bacteria, chlorine and turbidity(clarity) for the last four years. I asked to see the bills for payment, and the checks that paid for the services.
Once the reservoirs were found to be contaminated with bacteria, the next step was to immediately clean, flush and disinfect them. Then a re-testing of the reservoirs (200-350 NIS) for non-specific coliform bacteria should be done to insure that the cleaning procedures were effective. According to the management company, the November 2018 laboratory tests, taken before and after the cleaning, were the only two tests reported in the last four years. Why weren’t the reservoirs tested between the annual cleanings and why was this preventive measure not vigorously enforced by the Health Department of Israel? Everyone that I contacted was aware of the law, requiring to clean and sanitize the reservoirs annually, but no one thought of demanding a microbiological test between cleanings.
I contacted the private laboratory, and the reservoir cleaning company to discuss their findings. I was particularly interested in the chronology of their work for our building for the past four years. The reservoir cleaning company was reluctant to openly discuss their work at my building but referred me to the management office that hired them. I saw the last two laboratory reports and the last cleaning and sanitizing of the reservoirs in November 2018 . Still missing are the the technician’s documents for the last 4 years that clearly shows the physical condition and recommendations for the reservoirs observed during the cleaning procedure. Such documents would verify that the cleaning and sanitizing of the drinking water reservoirs was done and what repairs, if any, were suggested to protect the drinking water supply.
Next, I focused my efforts to the water company, Mai Netanya, that supplies the drinking water to the residents of Netanya. I requested that they send a technician to take a sample of the water that entered our building from their water hydrant, and have it sampled and sent to the State Laboratory in Tel Aviv. The water company has a state licensed vendor who they contract for sampling the water outside of the buildings throughout Netanya. I told them that our building had large numbers of non-specific coliform bacteria in our drinking water. A representative of Mai Netanya advised me that only if the chlorine level was 0.1 or less would the sample be sent to the lab for microbial testing. It was not reassuring to me that chlorine levels would be the sole basis of the microbial testing because chlorine is poorly effective against spores and cysts of pathogens that can contaminate drinking water.
I made arrangements twice to be present when the sample was taken and to see the actual testing of the chlorine levels and turbidity at the test site. The first test was done without me being present. Mai Netanya sent me the results indicating 0.37 turbidity and 0.3 chlorine. What they didn’t know was that the private laboratory sent from the management company had taken a water sample the day before and reported 0.1 turbidity and 0.3 chlorine. How did the turbidity increase almost 4 times within 24 hrs? Who was correct? I spoke to the private laboratory and the water company about this difference in results and no one could explain it. So, I asked the water company to retest the hydrant outside my building. They agreed and I requested again to be present. I spoke to the person who would take the test and arranged to meet him outside my building at the water hydrant for my building. Even with all of the arrangements the test was again conducted for chlorine and turbidity without my being present. Fortunately, I met him on the sidewalk after the fact, and he took another sample in my presence and poured out the first sample. Once the bottle left my sight, however, there was no protective seal that guaranteed that the water in the specimen bottle was the same water that came from the water hydrant test site. The vendor for Mai Netanya was also instructed to do a test at the collection site for turbidity and chlorine before sending it to the state laboratory. After several failed attempts to read the chlorine levels of the sample, he told me that the testing device wasn’t working.
The calibration and maintenance of the water sample testing equipment, the quality of drinking water, and the deviation in the quality of drinking water represent one of the many requirements of the Public Health Regulations 2013 that regulates the sanitary quality of drinking water in Israel — a law that in my professional opinion and personal experience is not being taken seriously.
It appears to me that the actual implementation of this law is based on the trust and honesty of all the players that bring tap water into your kitchen and bathroom. If you have a state license to sample the drinking water, we trust that you did it and did it correctly. If you are a Vaad or building management company, then the residents must trust that you are providing the best vendors to give the residents of the building safe tap water. And if you are the Public Health department of Israel, citizens must trust and believe that the people you license to take water samples and the laboratories that do testing are honest, competent and trustworthy. If the whole system of providing safe drinking water to your building fails, then all the key players simply cross their fingers and hope no one gets sick. When someone reports an odor, taste, or clarity issue with their drinking water, clean it up as fast as possible and bury the reasons in a unmarked grave. Not exactly a full proof system that we would expect from something as essential as the water we drink.
Immediately after the discovery of the coliform contamination in the building’s reservoirs, the Ministry of Health was contacted to visit our building and to evaluate the building’s reservoirs and the impact of the contaminated drinking water on the health of the residents of the building. After a month of contacts with them and after the reservoirs have been cleaned and sanitized, they offered to sample the tap water in an individual apartment. The results indicated safe drinking water from the apartment’s tap, 0.09 turbidity and 0.2 chlorine, within the accepted range of chlorine, 0.1 to 0.5.
I am extremely disappointed that the Ministry of Health Department did not not immediately investigate the cause of the non-specific coliform bacterial contamination of our building’s water supply and the health effects it may have had on the hundreds of residents living in the building. It is a bad message to the public when their Health Department does not fully investigate, from the beginning, a health hazard to the public’s drinking water. The private sector must also be held accountable if they failed to reasonably comply with the laws of Israel.
I have shared this story with you because those of you that live in a building over five floors high need to take action to make absolutely sure that you are receiving clean, safe drinking water from the water utility company, and that your reservoirs, pumps and pipes leading to your kitchen faucet and the shower stall are properly maintained. You need more than plastic spun filters or a carbon block to remove contamination of bacteria, spores and cysts from your kitchen tap and shower head. You can trust everyone who has the legal responsibility to bring clean, safe water into your home, however, you must have an independent witness to verify and sign that the cleaning process and the laboratory sampling was done. Residents must receive the actual written reports for the yearly cleaning and sanitizing of the reservoirs, and the microbiological reports from samples taken after the reservoirs are cleaned. Time periods for laboratory testing between cleanings must be established. The Ministry of Health should do random, unannounced screening of tap water in high rise apartments and fully investigate the causes of an unsafe drinking water result, and never forget that ……a healthy life begins with healthy water. We must not accept a replay of this story again.
Nachum Jacobs is a Pharmacist with over 40 years experience advising his patients about prescription drugs and alternative medicines and wellness. He made aliya 10 years ago from Maryland, USA. He currently imports Doulton Ceramic Water Filter Systems in Israel which are sold exclusively online (www.N-2.co.il). The Doulton ceramic filter is a unique product formulated with trace elements of silver that is certified by the Standardization Institute of Israel מכון התקנים and the National Safety Foundation (NSF) in the United States. Doulton ceramic filter’s pore size efficiency removes 99.99% of bacteria ,cysts, spores,and particulate matter.