Experts say stored rural water could pose health risks

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Inadequately stored drinking water could pose a health risk for rural households across Alaska, according to experts in the field.

Problems arise from dippers being set down on contaminated surfaces or when people scoop unwashed hands into water cans, experts said this week at the Alaska Tribal Environmental Management Conference in Anchorage.

Some rural households in state have no indoor plumbing. So families usually haul water from public water spigots at community wash houses or from traditional sources such as rivers, ponds, snow or ice. They often store the water in large plastic containers such as trash cans equipped with plastic dippers.

Primitive water and sewage disposal systems can lead to a range of health dangers, from infectious diseases such as hepatitis A and viral meningitis to increased spread of common ailments like colds and the flu. Alaska villages have long experienced high rates of these ailments, and state, federal and local governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades to bring more modern water and sewer systems to the Bush.

Yet in many villages, still rely on water hauled by hand and kept in containers in homes.

''In most cases, the traditional water sources aren't bad but as soon it gets into the house, it goes downhill fast,'' said Bill Stokes, a rural environmental quality specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Stokes and other state and tribal officials discussed ways to make water storage safer. Suggestions included designing a better home water delivery system, educating villagers about safe water handling or chlorinating or boiling water before use, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

No final recommendations were made at this week's conference.

Malcolm Ford of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service said the state has made significant progress toward providing all village homes with safe drinking water and flush toilets by 2005. But he said it may take longer to reach about 15 percent of homes in small, poor villages. In the meantime, Ford said, the state should consider economical ways to make home water systems safer.

Even when centralized water is available, villagers sometimes trust traditional water sources over spigot water that may taste strongly of chlorine or is brown in color, conference participants said. And some families prefer to collect and haul water even when they have plumbing in their homes.

A year ago, the Cooperative Extension Service sampled water sources and home water containers in Eek, Tanana and Shishmaref over winter, early spring and summer. The study found that total coliform and fecal coliform levels in water storage containers often exceeded safe levels for drinking water and occasionally even for swimming or boating.

''It was a real wake-up call,'' said Nina Miller, a wellness coordinator with the Alaska Native Health Board.

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