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Globe & Mail July 27 2000,Thur. - by Alanna Mitchell

Woman files notice over private well

Pickering mother alleges E. coli-contaminated water in Ontario Realty Corp. property caused her severe illness

Toronto -- A Pickering woman has begun launching legal action against the Ontario government after alleging that she has been made ill by well water contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

The private well is on a property Victoria Fairman rents through the government agency Ontario Realty Corp. Under Ontario law, a landlord is obliged to ensure that a tenant's drinking water is potable. The safety of Pickering's public water system is not in question.

The Ontario government has been trying to restore public confidence in the water system since six people died after drinking E. coli-contaminated water in Walkerton two months ago.

In turn, that tragedy, which also made 2,000 people ill, has drawn attention to the quality of water throughout Canada and has heightened concerns over deadly strains of E. coli.

Ms. Fairman, 33, has sent notice to the province, the Ontario Realty Corp. and to the private management company Del Management Solutions that she intends to sue over the fact that she was not notified about the contamination of her water supply.

"If they knew there was a potential problem with the water, they should have told me," said Mrs. Fairman yesterday. "I just cannot believe that this can go on in this day and age."

Mrs. Fairman has been sick since March with digestive upsets and urinary tract infections. She has lost hair and shed weight. Her water has been tested, but she has been given no results despite repeated requests. She believes the well contains E. coli.

A week ago, her plumbing system was flushed out, her well was drained and workers put "some sort of chlorine" in her well, she said. "If I could leave my home, I would leave," she said.

Her three-year-old son has been ill for weeks. Her five-month-old baby drinks formula and has been exposed to well water but shows no signs of illness. After repeated medical examinations, neither she nor her doctor could figure out what was wrong. Finally, her urine tested positive for E. coli.

It's not clear whether it is a deadly, toxin-producing strain of the bacteria or one that is more benign. The milder form of the disease is not reportable to public health authorities. But public health rules mandate that it should not be present in drinking water.

It's also not clear how Mrs. Fairman might have picked up the bacteria. Generally, it is transmitted through human or cattle feces that infect food or water. It is also spread by touch.

Murray Miskin, Mrs. Fairman's lawyer, said yesterday that the Walkerton tragedy ought to have made the Ontario government more eager to let residents know about the quality of the water. One of the key criticisms there was that water officials knew that the water was contaminated but failed to warn residents.

Doug Dickerson, a regional councillor who represents Pickering on the Durham Regional Council, said he, too, is frustrated over how the government and its agencies have dealt with residents' concerns.

He can't find out how many properties the Ontario Realty Commission owns, how many wells have been tested, how many showed positive to E. coli, or what the levels of contamination are.

"They will give us no information," he said in an interview yesterday. "There's not even so much as a hotline."

Some residents, he said, were given a bottle of bleach to pour into their wells. Many have been drinking bottled water.

Dr. Robert Kyle, the medical officer of health for the region that encompasses Pickering, said his office has had no reports of serious E. coli infections from that city. He noted that the non-deadly strains of the bacterium cause mild -- but not fatal -- illness.

He said his office has been in continuous contact with Del, the property management company and is now satisfied that the renters are getting potable water.


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