Salem city officials issued a do-not-drink advisory Tuesday following the detection of low levels of toxins in city drinking water pulled from the North Santiam River. The advisory was extended for an unspecified period when new test results came in on Thursday.
The advisory affects children under 6 years old and vulnerable populations, such as nursing mothers and dialysis patients. Officials are urging them to drink bottled water.
Is there something that can be done to treat the water so it is safe to drink?
David Farrer, a public health toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said there really isn't anything to be done to treat the water.
Boiling the water doesn't work; camping filters don't work; nor do the filters that attach to faucets. Farrer said it's best for children and others in vulnerable populations to not drink the water until the advisory is lifted.
What are cyanotoxins?
A common bacteria called cyanobacteria sometimes produces a natural poison called cyanotoxins. In mammals, exposure to cyanotoxins can cause allergic reaction and respiratory issues, and cause acute illness, including liver and kidney damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. With extreme exposure, symptoms may include organ failure, paralysis and even death.
How long are the drinking water restrictions expected to last?
"I cannot give you a definitive answer," Lacey Goeres-Priest, Salem's water quality supervisor, told the Statesman Journal.
City officials said in an advisory posted online, "City of Salem is working closely with local and state public health and emergency response agencies to address the situation and to quickly reduce Cyanotoxin levels in tap water."
"City of Salem will post an updated advisory when: the Cyanotoxin levels are less than or equal to the national drinking water Health Advisories, this Do Not Drink Advisory is lifted and/or if there are any changes to the conditions of this Do Not Drink Advisory.
The advisory was extended when new test results came in on Thursday.
The health advisory for Detroit Lake was issued last week. When did officials learn that the river water was a problem?
Water was sampled late last week and officials received the results of testing the water on Saturday, said Goeres-Priest. The results showed toxin levels were higher than a health advisory level for vulnerable communities and children, but remained below safe levels for adults.
The city has been coordinating with the Oregon Health Authority over the weekend.
After consulting with the OHA and Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Salem issued the advisory based on the data.
"We wanted to be proactive because we're coming up on the 10-day exposure period — if people are exposed to it for 10 days that's when the probability of health issues increases," said Greg Walsh, emergency manager for City of Salem.
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Detroit Reservoir has algae blooms every year. Why is it so bad this year?
"Every bloom is different," Goeres-Priest said.
She said it depends on, among other factors, the level of toxins being produced in the watershed and whether toxins are making their way all the way down the river to the water treatment facility.
"It's hard to say exactly why this year is different than last year," Goeres-Priest said. "We just know that based off the sample results that it is."
Three toxic blooms were identified in locations around Detroit Lake — at Blowout Arm, Heater Creek Arm and near the dam. That's more than in the past.
The bloom in Blowout Arm had a particularly high concentration of toxins, officials said. A liver toxin called "microcystin" was tested on May 23 at 48.21 parts per billion in that location. A health advisory is triggered when levels are just 4 parts per billion.
What is recommended for expectant or nursing mothers?
Farrer said he didn't know of good data on whether toxins can transfer from a nursing mother to her baby. But officials definitely do not want mothers drinking the water — they should stick with bottled water.
He said breast feeding in this case is preferred to preparing formula with tap water.
Can I use my water filtration system to purify the water?
"Most water filters and purifiers will not remove this toxin from drinking water," the advisory states. "See manufacturer's recommendation for water filtration capabilities."
What is Salem-Keizer Public Schools doing for water for students and staff?
Kindergarten and younger children, as well as other at-risk children (such as those who are medically fragile) will be provided bottled water, said Joel Smallwood, manager of maintenance and construction services with Salem-Keizer Public Schools.
Schools on Keizer's water system are not affected.
Food services will use bottled water for all food prep throughout the district that’s fed by Salem water, he said.
"We’ve got a team delivering right now," Smallwood said.
What cities outside of Salem are affected by the drinking water restrictions?
Stayton and Turner are falling in line with Salem's water advisory.
"We do test our water," said Keith Campbell, Stayton's city manager. "I don’t know if it’s as frequent as Salem, but our tests hadn’t come up with anything."
Still, "we're going with just following the advisories with the city of Salem," he said.
David Sawyer, Turner's city administrator, said Salem officials contacted his city last week and told them about the concern.
"All of the water that comes into Salem, basically we tap into those lines as they come down the canyon. It’s the same system," Sawyer said. "Because of the size of our distribution system, we’re testing for E coli and we’re testing for chlorine and things like that, just to make sure."
What about restaurants?
Farrer said that restaurants that use city water should not use the water to serve customers.
Health officials also are advising against using the water for cooking and washing food, he said.
Why is it considered safe to bathe and wash dishes with the water?
City officials said the water is OK to use to clean, bathe and wash dishes, as well as cleaning laundry, washing your hands and flushing toilets.
"However, infants and young children under the age of six should be supervised while bathing and during other tap water-related activities to prevent accidental ingestion of water," the advisory states.
Farrer said these toxins are not absorbed through the skin and the only way for them to get into people is if they are swallowed.
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Health officials are recommending that children who are being bathed be supervised to make sure they don't drink the water, Farrer said.
Even so, a small amount of consumption is not going to be a harmful, such as the amount you swallow when washing your face or the a little bit of water that gets into your mouth when you shower, Farrer said.
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