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Bacteria found in Downey's water

Residents are told to boil their tap water at least through Sunday.

September 27, 2008|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

Public health officials have urged Downey residents to boil their tap water through Sunday after coliform bacteria were found in the city's water supply.

City, county and state public health officials issued a boil-water order about 6 p.m. Thursday after the city's water tested positive for the bacteria earlier that day, Deputy City Manager Desi Alvarez said Friday.

The action prompted the closure of scores of restaurants and trigged a consumer rush on bottled water.

Residents may continue to shower or bathe in water from the tap, but are strongly cautioned to boil it before drinking it or cooking with it, said Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

He suggested that they should instead drink bottled water.

City officials said Downey tests its water weekly.

On Thursday, the city received the results from water quality tests conducted Tuesday, showing a positive reading for the coliform bacteria at three of the city's 25 sampling locations, Alvarez said.

The three sites were spread throughout the 12.5-square-mile city of 110,600 residents.

"Boil-water orders are fairly common in California, but boil-water orders affecting a community of this size [are] rare," said Stefan Cajina, district engineer for the state Department of Public Health. Downey has the only active boil-water order in Southern California, he said.

In December, San Diego County health officials ordered a nudist camp to boil its well water after tests found coliform bacteria.

Coliform bacteria are naturally present in the environment and are used as an indicator of other, potentially harmful bacteria, Bellomo said.

But E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria, which have the potential to pose a serious health problem, have not been detected in Downey's water, Cajina said.

The source of the bacteria in the water has not been determined, and health officials said tests sometimes show a false reading, said Mayor David R. Gafin.

"This is a precautionary measure," he said. "We don't want to take any risks."

No illnesses have been reported.

Bellomo said ingesting too much of the bacteria could lead to gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the intestinal tract involving the stomach and the small intestine.

The boil-water order was issued effective immediately Thursday evening through Sunday while water supplies are chlorinated and the lines where the bacteria were found are flushed.

City crews are flushing water from fire hydrants in the affected areas, and chlorine is being added to disinfect the pipelines, Gafin said.

If the results for two days show the water is free of the bacteria, the order will be lifted, but it could extend beyond three days, Cajina said.

The city's Public Works Department has released a list of responses to frequently asked questions on the boil-water order on its website. Tips include avoiding brushing teeth with tap water, boiling all water ingested by pets, using bleach to chlorinate water and dumping out all ice frozen from tap water.

The majority of the city's roughly 200 restaurants are closed because they can't operate within the county's health standards, Bellomo said, adding, "It's difficult operating a restaurant without potable water."

Signs on local eateries and fast-food restaurants reading "We are temporarily closed due to Downey water contamination" were tacked to doors.

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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