Health update: No restaurants cited yet for using contaminated water, consumption illnesses likely to lay dormant for 10 days

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Amid Austin’s citywide water contamination issues, public health officials Thursday said no restaurant has been cited yet for using water straight from the tap nor has anyone been reported sick. However, they said any illnesses associated with contaminated water would likely lay dormant until next week.

Since Monday, Austin has been under an unprecedented citywide boil water notice, the result of several weeks of rainfall, which set off destructive upstream flooding that flushed exceptional amounts of sediment and contaminants into Austin’s water source. The sediment-heavy water has effectively slowed the efficiency of the city’s water treatment plants.

The citywide boil has impacted business operations throughout the city, forcing some establishments to temporarily close. On Thursday, Austin Public Health Assistant Director Don Hastings attempted to quell patron worries and said the health department has ramped up inspections and no restaurants have been cited for using dirty water.

To restaurant and business operators, he said commercial, high-heat dishwashers—165 to 180 degrees—or those with sanitizing cycles are approved for use and restaurants or businesses that do not have this option should continue to use boiled or bottled water to wash dishes.

However, Hastings said any internal filtration systems used by businesses are not adequate for the type of treatment the water requires and urged establishments to continue to use boiled water or bottled water.

Too early to tell if people are getting sick

Earlier Thursday, Austin Public Health officials said there had been an uptick in the number of reported illnesses they would associate with contaminated water consumption—gastroenteritis, stomach or intestinal viruses. On Thursday, Hastings said such illnesses wouldn’t reveal themselves in the population until next week.

“The [dormancy]period for nearly all of these [illnesses]we’re concerned with is generally seven to 10 days…it can even be longer than that,” Hastings said. “There just hasn’t been enough time for an illness to be reliably traced back to this event.”

Jeff Taylor, manager of the epidemiology program in the city’s health department, said the city regularly receives information from the area’s school districts, long-term care facilities and hospitals on any health anomalies or trends and will continue to monitor the public’s health as the situation progresses.

A longer, less risky boil

The target officials have cited for lifting the boil water notice is Sunday, although Hastings said no one is certain of that deadline. He acknowledged the length of the boil water notice has been much longer than what is typical, however, this situation, he said, is less risky as well.

Boil notices usually are the result of a water pipe break somewhere along the system. Since the pipes run underground, Hastings said pipe breaks “almost always mean contamination.” Since the water in the system is flowing outward, the boil water advisory only impacts customers beyond the break, which is why it is so rare for a citywide notice.

Those advisories are typically lifted within 24 to 48 hours as public works crews can come out and fix the pipe relatively quickly. In Austin’s current situation, the contamination is occurring at the water source, which, unlike a busted pipe, is not a quick fix. Although the target is Sunday, no one is certain when the water coming in to the treatment plants will fully clear up, which is why Austin Water officials said Wednesday that the situation’s timeline leans heavily on the weather.

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  1. I was vomiting with major diarrhea for 18 hours AND I drank water from a Whirlpool refrigerator that has a filter that gets out many contaminates! After I could drink some water I switched to a Berkey & was better IMMEDIATELY — aweful – City of Austin should give ME and others a HUGE discount on our water bills for this major illness & missing work, etc. Don’t WE PAY enough for COA to keep their filtration system updated – OR do they just LIKE HIGH Property TAXES so they can pay their multitudes (need to get rid of lots) of employees HIGH salaries????? ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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