Milwaukee The Nations Worst Drinking Water Disaster

In April 1993, 403,000 residents of Milwaukee became victims of what is considered the worst drinking water disaster the nation has experienced. Cryptospor-idium flourished in the city water supply, which had been turbid (cloudy) for several days. For a week more than eight hundred thousand residents were without potable (drinkable) tap water. By the end of the disaster more than forty people lost their lives because of the outbreak. In addition to the human suffering, the disease cost an estimated $37 million in lost wages and productivity.

Among the possible causes for the outbreak were the advanced age and flawed design of the Milwaukee water plant, which returned dirty water back to the reservoir. Other explanations included failure of plant personnel to react quickly when turbidity levels rose; critical monitoring equipment that was broken at the time turbidity levels peaked; a water intake point that was vulnerable to contamination; and a slaughterhouse, feedlot, and sewage treatment plant that were located upriver from the plant. Water treatment experts blamed the complacency of officials and false assumptions based on a history of quality water dispersal.

As a result of the disaster, Milwaukee launched one of the most aggressive drinking water programs in the country. Each week the city monitors for Cryptosporidium and has set a zero standard for the parasite. It has also adopted a turbidity standard five times tougher than federal regulations. Turbidity, although harmless in itself, is often a precursor to the presence of organisms such as Cryptosporidium.


Each year the Gallup Organization conducts its annual poll on environmental topics. The last poll dealing specifically with water issues occurred in 2004. The pollsters found that water issues top the list of Americans' environmental concerns. The percentage of people expressing a great deal of worry about a particular environmental problem was highest for pollution of drinking water. More than half of those asked (53%) indicated they feel a great deal of concern about it. Pollution of surface waters ranked second with 48%. Maintenance of the nation's fresh water supply for household needs ranked fourth with 47%. Gallup concluded that Americans are significantly more worried about water issues than other environmental issues, such as air pollution or plant and animal resources.

However, concern about drinking water was down in 2004 compared with all previous years. (See Table 9.4.) In 1990 nearly two-thirds of the people asked expressed a great deal of worry about drinking water pollution. The percentage increased to 72% in 2000 and then decreased in each subsequent year. Gallup polls conducted through 2004 have also questioned people regarding their concern about pollution of surface waters, including rivers, lakes,

Continue reading here: Public concern about pollution of drinking water

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