Sun Times staff
Justice Dennis O’Connor’s first report on the events of May, 2000 drew together decades of events and oversights that played parts in the deadly outbreak.
He found a heavy rain beginning May 8 washed E. coli and Campylobacter jejuni from a nearby farm into the town’s Well 5, which along with Well 6 and Well 7, provided the town’s drinking water at the time. He found Well 5 to be the source of contamination that killed seven and made about 3,000 people ill, some permanently.
The following timeline is based on Part 1 of the Report of the Walkerton Inquiry.
Walkerton’s Well 5 is drilled shallow in fractured bedrock. It is identified as vulnerable to surface contamination, but no special requirements are made to ensure the water is chlorinated and tested properly.
Ministry of the Environment inspects Well 5 in 1991, 1995 and 1998, but it is not assessed to see if it is directly affected by surface water. Problems with testing and chlorination are identified, but the ministry relies on the Walkerton PUC to fix them without ordering it to do so.
MOE budget cuts start in 1992 and are stepped up after the election of 1995.
Sun Times staff
Long may Kody Hammell run.
Ten years after Walkerton’s E. coli water poisoning left the tyke comatose and in kidney failure, the 11-year-old’s survival is a triumph of perseverance and medicine.
Amid the immediate crisis his mother, Tracey Hammell, drew on advice from her mother.
“My mom always said God wouldn’t give you anything you couldn’t handle,” Hammell recalled recently in the dining room of her country home near Hanover.
“So I thought, ‘Well then he won’t take him from me because I couldn’t handle it.'”
Kody’s gut-wrenching story was told by Justice Dennis O’Connor in his exhaustive report into the causes of one of Canada’s worst public health disasters, in May, 2000.
Cattle manure containing a deadly form of E. coli bacteria was washed by heavy rainfall into a town well, a well the Ministry of the Environment warned was vulnerable to contamination when built in 1978.
O’Connor recounted in heart-pounding detail Kody’s mom’s discovery of her son’s bloody diapers during the Victoria Day long weekend. He was vomiting, eyes rolling backward.
The hospital was backed up with sick people and Kody couldn’t be seen for hours. Advised to make him drink, with a syringe if necessary, Tracey Hammell got one and “shoved water down his throat.”
Sun Times staff
WALKERTON — Cassandra Diemert has never simply gone to her tap and turned it on for a drink of water.
The nine-year-old Walkerton resident never will if her mom Stacey has anything to say about it.
In her mind, Cassandra has already suffered enough because of Walkerton’s water. The elementary school student was not even born in 2000 when E. coli bacteria contaminated the town’s water system, killing seven people and sickening thousands more.
“I’ve had a glass or two out of the tap but we buy bottled water for the kids,” Stacey Diemert said one sunny spring day as she and 11-year-old daughter Victoria loaded a water-cooler jug into the family van.
“We won’t go through that again. For my kids’ safety and their health, I’ll buy water. I know it’s expensive in the long run, but it’s worth it. I think people are drinking a lot more bottled water. It’s for the piece of mind.”
Cassandra Diemert isn’t the only Walkerton resident who hasn’t had a glass of tap water since 2000.
Sun Times staff
LONDON — Ian McDonald was fighting for his life when the same wave of wrenching gut cramps caused by E. coli bacteria attacked his three-year-old sister Kylie.
Ian, 4, was already gravely ill when his mother, Cathy McDonald, noticed blood in his urine and doctors had him transferred from hospital in Walkerton to London.
She travelled in a police cruiser that accompanied Ian’s ambulance when the air ambulance was unavailable. Her husband Jamie McDonald was an OPP constable stationed in Walkerton then.
Ian’s arms were black and blue from IV injections. He’d been throwing up blood in Walkerton and he was dying.
His condition worsened in London. A surgeon had to open him up to stop an internal bleed before he was placed on dialysis in the middle of the night.
Hours before that, word came that Kylie had it too. Room was found for her in the fast-filling facility, in the floor above where Ian lay. Her kidneys were failing too.
Sun Times staff
The man in charge of enforcing Ontario’s drinking water standards says municipal drinking water in the province has become among the best protected in the world 10 years after E. coli bacteria killed seven people and made thousands sick in Walkerton.
“The first word that I would use to describe where we’ve come since 2000 is transformational,” said Ontario’s chief drinking water inspector John Stager.
Since the Walkerton water disaster, the province has enacted strict laws for treating, monitoring and testing municipal drinking water. Source water is better protected and system operators, inspectors and laboratories must now be certified and licenced.
But advocates for safer drinking water say more can and should be done to ensure every Ontarian — and Canadian — has access to safe, clean, reliable drinking water.
They point to a need for stricter regulations to protect the quality of Ontario’s lakes and rivers and to preserve the safety of private wells. They’re also calling on the federal government to provide stronger leadership by creating a national policy to boost water quality across Canada.
The Sun Times
The seven-year Walkerton Health Study showed about 65% of people in Walkerton got sick by drinking the deadly E. coli-laden water and nearly all recovered.
It found at least 3,000 people contracted intestinal illness during the E. coli outbreak, significantly more than is often quoted. Seven people died from the May 2000 outbreak.
“The vast majority of people, they’ve moved on. Their health is good,” said Dr. Bill Clark, who headed the study.
The study started with 4,300 people, including 1,000 who didn’t get sick. A diminishing number continued to participate in annual checkups between 2002 and 2008.
“There is a small minority of people who have significant problems,” Clark said.
The study helped catch and treat illnesses both brought on by the disaster and not, he said.
There were 27 children during the outbreak who developed kidney damage or hemolytic uremic syndrome. Now four remain on medication.
HUS is caused when a toxin produced by the E. coli. bursts blood vessels predominantly in the kidneys, though the gut, the brain and pancreas are also at risk.
Sun Times staff
Aleasha Reich, a statuesque 17-year-old young woman, stands as a proud Walkerton success.
The reigning ambassador of the Walkerton Little Royal Fair was once fighting for her life, amid this town’s tainted water cover-up in May 2000.
She and a younger boy were the first two Walkerton patients seen by then-Owen Sound Dr. Kristen Hallett, who set in motion the hunt for the source of E. coli poisoning.
While Aleasha suffered kidney failure in a London hospital bed, doctors worried she might have a fatal stroke. But the seven-year-old recovered with no apparent physical injury and left hospital after two weeks.
Aleasha’s participation in the seven-year Walkerton Health Study found no lasting physical health concerns.
“We’re very thankful,” said Aleasha’s mother, Cathy. She wears a ring with five stones, representing the month of May when disaster struck, “to remind us how lucky we are.”
But Aleasha suffers from anxiety and migraines. She strives to feel in control of situations, which a psychiatrist told her is a normal reaction to her E. coli traumatization.
So the lasting effect on Aleasha has been emotional.
She has a phobia about needles, after receiving around 160 injections because of her illness. It was “a matter of holding her down” to give her an injection, said her mom, Cathy, who Aleasha calls “my rock.”
And Aleasha’s alarm as a child at anyone drinking tap water still compels her immediate family not to drink it.
“I know it’s fine now and that it wouldn’t hurt me but I just can’t get myself to get a glass of it,” she said.
There is one big medical uncertainty remaining. She has been told she may be unable to bear children because of the E. coli poisoning.
Aleasha is graduating from high school this spring, then it’s off to Conestoga College to study early childhood education next fall.
Her winning speech to Little Royal judges was about the benefits of small-town life, with caring people and productive farms. If it turns out she lives her whole life in Walkerton, she’ll do so happily, she said.
“I think the town in general has come back very well from it. Everyone is very supportive of one another,” Aleasha said.