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Water Today Title November 27, 2020

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Update 2018/4/25
Small Drinking Water Systems


This story is brought to you in part by Waterloo Biofilter Systems

by Cori Marshall

The Walkerton E. coli outbreak occurred nearly eighteen years ago. Since that tragedy, the Ontario government has been moving towards increased transparency, oversight, and public reporting of small drinking water systems (SDWS).

SDWS are not merely non-municipal water systems. They provide public access to water and are not connected to the municipal distribution system, there are no requirements for the minimum number of connections, or people served to be designated an SDWS. Examples of these types of systems are restaurants, trailer parks, and businesses that have kitchens.

The changes in SDWS oversight has added to the workload of the 36 public health units across the province. The size of, and resources available to the units vary from region to region. Health units are at various stages of adaptation to the new protocols.

WaterToday canvassed many public health units across Ontario to assess how they are adapting to the new reality.

The requirements for health units to report adverse situations regarding SDWS came into force January 1 of this year, though the situation has been evolving for some time.

Fatih Sekercioglu, Manager of Safe Water, Rabies and Vector Borne Disease for the Middlesex London Public Health Unit, explained that "in December 2008 SDWS regulation was transferred from the Ministry of Environment to Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care." He pointed out that this "made more sense since the MOHLTC was already overseeing inspections of related restaurants and any facilities having kitchens."

Philip Wong, Manager of Environmental Health Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, said that "this is a big change, and everybody is adapting to it right now." He added, "we are working really hard, long hours here at the health unit trying to protect the community, the protocols change, but the work still continues."

When communicating with the different public health units, you begin to see the different stages of adaptation. Andrew Landy, Senior Public Health Inspector for Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, said that their disclosure site was currently under development. This was echoed by Robert A-Muhong, Manager of Environmental Health for North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit, who said "a disclosure system is being developed to keep the public informed."

Chris Eaton, Public Health Inspector - Small Drinking Water Systems for Peterborough Public Health said "when Regulation 319 was rolled out, staff were provided with training from the Ministry on both administrative and technical aspects of SDWS." The health unit continues to develop its staff, though as Eaton explained "a great deal of on-the-job, hands-on learning takes place in the field."

Public health units are in the process of adapting to the new protocols, as well as developing new systems to report adverse situations to the public. Under the new rules how many adverse test results and advisories are being reported?

Jean-Guy Albert, Public Health Manager for Huron County Health Unit, explained "it will vary from year to year, in 2017 we responded to 6 notifications, which is typical for this Health Unit."

Kelsey Lutzi, Program Director Environmental Health Team for Haldiman Norfolk Health Unit, pointed out that "the HNHU does not receive very many actual advisories, (...) in 2017 there were 0 issued in this regard." Luzi added that they "more routinely deal with AWQIs (Adverse Water Quality Incidents)." The HNHU saw 76 AWQIs in 2017.

Shawn Zenter, Manager Health Protection for Wellington Dufferin Guelph Public Health, said "we rarely have advisories, and would typically issue advisories if there is evidence that the water is unsafe."

This touches on an important point why are health units seeing and being informed of adverse water quality?

Phillip Wong said that "a lot of the time when you have an adverse it is due to a part that's not working, or improper samples sometimes the operator will not properly sample the water." This could be due to something as simple as getting a finger into the water sample.

Christina Weider, Manager of Safe Water for Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said that "the majority of the advisories (they see) were issued due to a microbiological exceedance."

Halton Region Public Health sees approximately 20 advisories on average, and Dr Hamidah Meghani, Medical Officer of Health, said that "AWQIs and advisories commonly result from improper sampling techniques or the improper handling of the water sample."

As you can see the causes of advisories remain the same from region to region, the number varies depending on the size and where the health unit is located. How are the units ensuring that the corrective measures are being carried out?

Paul Callahan, Director of Health Protection for Region of Peel Public Health, explained "when problems are identified, the public health inspector assigned to inspect the system works with the owner/operator and other partners to put measures in place until the problem is solved."

Glendene Collins Manager, Community and Resource Development for Durham Region Health Department said that any incident is reviewed by staff for risk assessment. "Drinking water advisories, which often take the form of a Section 13 Order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, are issued to the owner/operator of the system, and they are required to take specific actions to eliminate the hazard." She added that "the conditions must be fulfilled prior to the Order or advisory being revoked."

Under Regulation 319/08: Small Drinking Water Systems, operators are required to register with the public health unit and have written permission to operate SDWS. Also, health units are required to carry out inspections and report adverse water quality and advisories to the public.

Regional health units are adapting to new requirements at their own speed. The number of advisories and AWQIs fluctuates depending on the region though the reason behind them appears to remain constant. The new protocols have increased workloads, and depending on resources this can affect staff, though the public health units are striving to monitor SDWS to ensure that the water that is provided from these systems is safe.


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