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Q&A: Keeping Healthy During Boston's Water Crisis

This article is more than 12 years old.

About 2 million people in the Boston area face their third day of a boil-water order due to a broken pipe that's affected the region's whole water system. To talk about the health risk, and how people can keep from getting sick, WBUR's health and science reporter, Sacha Pfeiffer, had this conversation with Morning Edition host Bob Oakes.

So we've been warned not to drink tap water, but what happens if we do? Say you accidentally swallow some when you're showering?

Well, first of all, symptoms would probably take about seven days to show up. But until then there isn't really anything you can do.

There's no preventive medicine you can take, either prescription or over-the-counter?

No, there isn't. And even if you do catch some sort of parasite from drinking untreated water, such as giardia or cryptosporidium, some of these parasitic diseases don't require special medicine or treatment. Some of them do need an antibiotic or an anti-parasitic medication. But you'd want to consult with your doctor about that. What you shouldn't do right now is panic and race to the emergency room. Here's the state's medical director, Dr. Lauren Smith:

There's no reason for people who do not have symptoms who think (they) may have drunk water to go to the doctor's office or go to the emergency room. If you don't have symptoms, there's really no reason to seek out medical care at this point.

Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director, Massachusetts Department of Public Health
I assume she's saying that in part because doctors and hospitals don't want to be overwhelmed with the so-called "worried well"?

Exactly. In fact, Dr. Smith says some E.R.s are already seeing the "worried well" come in saying they may have drank the water and need to be checked out. But she says there's nothing anyone can do to "check them out." So people should sit tight and watch for symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.

What about local hospitals? How are they getting the water they need for patient care and sterilizing equipment and that sort of thing?

Well, actually, this is a little surprising. The Longwood Medical Area hospitals — Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Children's Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — can actually use their tap water. That's because the MWRA was able to temporarily reconfigure the water pipes leading to those hospitals to help them out.

Just those four hospitals?

Yes, just those four.

Was that an accident of geography, since they're all clustered in the same area?

Yes. It has to do with how the pipes run under the city. Hospitals on the other side of town, including Mass General and Tufts Medical Center and Boston Medical Center, can't use their tap water.

So what are they doing?

They've taken a bunch of measures to protect their patients. Those include using bottled water or saline solution for treating wounds, and using sterile water for scrubbing into the O.R. They also have big supplies of bottled water on hand. So for the most part it's business as usual there.

Let's just back track for a minute. The health concerns come from the fact that the water flowing right now out of most taps in the Boston area, which comes from emergency reserves, hasn't been treated the way our drinking water usually is, right?

That's right. The water isn't going through its usual disinfection and filtration process. That's why people should use bottled water or boil their tap water for at least one minute before they drink it.

Is the water coming out of our taps still safe for showering and flushing?

Yes, for non-drinking purposes, tap water is basically fine. Here's Dr. Smith again, the state medical director, spelling out when you do need to use bottled or boiled water.

Any drinking, cooking, washing fruits and vegetables that you're going to eat raw, mixing infant formula or other liquids or drinks that you reconstitute from powder or concentrate, for making ice, for brushing your teeth, and for washing your hands.

Dr. Lauren Smith, state medical director
She says that's especially important for people with compromised immune systems and for anyone who takes care of infants or the elderly.

How about making coffee in a home coffeemaker? Can you use tap water for that?

You know, Dr. Smith jokes that only in New England is that coffee question so very important. But it is getting asked a lot, and she says you should use bottled or boiled water in automatic coffee makers because those machines don't heat water long enough or hot enough to make untreated water safe.

If symptoms take about seven days to show up, as you mentioned before, and if the boil-water order went into effect Saturday, does that mean that next weekend we could see a lot of sick people in the Boston area?

We really don't know. But I was talking about this with Bob Zimmerman, who heads the Charles River Watershed Association. He certainly doesn't think people should be cavalier about this. But he's actually not that concerned about anyone getting sick.

Nobody can guarantee that it's 100 percent safe. On the other hand, the likelihood that somebody is going to get sick from it is very low.

Bob Zimmerman, executive director, Charles River Watershed Association
His comment gets at the point that Boston's tap water isn't actually contaminated, as far as we know; it's simply untreated. And while that does pose a risk of illness, it doesn't mean you're definitely going to get sick if you drink it, right?

Right. The water could be completely fine. So Zimmerman says follow MWRA guidelines; just don't obsess.

If they say boil the water, boil the water. And when they say that it's safe to use that water again, that will probably come with some caveats, like run your water for several minutes to flush out the pipes. And then we should be back to normal.

Bob Zimmerman, Charles River Watershed Association
Zimmerman says he believes that by the time the boil-water order is lifted, the MWRA will be 100 percent sure that the water is safe.

This program aired on May 3, 2010.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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