Drink the Water
By Erik Marcus
Canada has just discovered that E. coli - the dangerous food-borne bacteria usually associated with raw meat - can be deadly when it penetrates a local water supply.
In late May, newspaper reports began appearing about residents of Walkerton, Ontario contracting E. coli. Over the next few days, the number of cases surged, and it quickly became apparent that the entire town had been drinking water contaminated with a particular strain of the new bacteria, O157: H7. This strain produces a kidney-destroying toxin that is often fatal to children and older people. The most common initial symptom is bloody diarrhea. As In These Times went to press, more than 1,000 of Walkerton's 5,000 residents had been diagnosed with E. coli. Seven people have died, and the coroner is investigating four more deaths. The water supply won't be considered safe again until at least early August. So for now, many residents drink only bottled water, eat off paper plates and even refuse to bathe in their tap water.
But the media have failed to focus on the probable cause of the outbreak: factory farms near Walkerton.
Factory farms hold thousands of animals in a single facility, generating a tremendous amount of manure. In hog farms, feces are usually drained into lagoons, which are notorious for overflowing during heavy rains. But when working correctly, lagoons do at least break down the animal waste before it is sprayed on nearby fields. Cattle manure, by contrast, doesn't usually receive such processing. It is spread raw, where its bacteria may percolate down into the water supply. Although it has not yet been conclusively established that a local livestock operation caused the Walkerton outbreak, there is no other plausible explanation.
Erik Marcus is the publisher of Vegan.com and the author of Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating.