Winnipeg's boil-water advisory remains in place

Test results show Winnipeg water is safe for drinking, but residents will remain under a precautionary citywide boil-water advisory until results of further sampling are received Thursday afternoon.

Latest tests were negative for harmful bacteria, but more results expected tomorrow

The City of Winnipeg held a press conference Tuesday night to address concerns surrounding a boil water advisory that has been issued for the entire city after samples of E. Coli were detected. 2:54

Test results show Winnipeg water is safe for drinking, but residents will remain under a precautionary citywide boil-water advisory until results of further sampling are received Thursday afternoon.

City officials provided an update at 3 p.m. local time and announced that recent sample tests were negative for harmful bacteria, including E. Coli. But the city said it will wait for word from Manitoba's chief medical officer before it lifts the boil water-advisory.

Geoff Patton, acting director of the city's water and waste department, said it is too soon to lift the advisory.

"In terms of why the precautionary boil-water advisory is still in effect is there's a decision tree, there's a requirement to go through a process, there has to be a second set of resampling at those locations," said Patton.

While water must be boiled before drinking it or using it for food preparation, tap water is still safe for hand washing, he said early Wednesday morning.

Abnormal test results, including the ones that confirmed the E. coli that prompted the advisory to be issued on Tuesday night, are rare for Winnipeg.

Winnipeg's first citywide boil-water advisory is not the same as a 'no water event,' according to city officials. They say people can still wash their hands, but should use bottled water or boil tap water before consuming.

The boil-water advisory instituted Tuesday marked the first for the entire city, Patton said.

"They just don't add up," Patton said of the test results. "We need to get to the bottom of this." 

He noted that it takes time to grow bacterial samples for testing, and if Wednesday's tests come back negative, there will be a consultation before the boil-water advisory is lifted.

Mayor Brian Bowman also added that regardless of the results, the whole water system will be reviewed.

"We're going to assess all of the processes, not just how water is dealt with but also emergency preparedness here at city hall and with the administration, as well as communication with various stakeholders including the province," said Bowman.

"Contingency plans are being made in the event that we get different outcomes, because Winnipeggers, this is one of our core services providing safe and clean drinking water and so it's being treated with the priority that it demands."

Bowman acknowledged the advisory was having an impact on Winnipeg businesses, but emphasized his priority was to ensure the safety of the city's residents.

"This really highlights the need for all organizations to have contingency plans, the same way you would have for power outages," said Bowman. "At this point in time we're simply asking people to boil the water and any talk about compensation will have to go to council."

The city also said that it was the same employee who conducted the original tests it now believes were false positives.

Abundance of caution

Lisa Richards, the chief medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA), said she was relieved, but added the additional round of tests are also a necessary part of federal requirements before a boil-water advisory may be lifted

"[It] is reassuring," said Richards. "However, in accordance with Health Canada's guidance for issuing and rescinding boil-water advisories, two sets of negative samples are required 24 hours apart to rescind the advisory."

According to the WRHA, the boil-water advisory will not affect surgeries because they don't require the use of tap water. 

"But out of an abundance of caution, we are following the city's advice where we have made sure all of our water fountains and ice machines are not being used," said Helen Clark of the WRHA.

Clark also said young patients or those with weakened immune systems in facilities are being given bottled water, because they could be at risk of "bad water."

The WRHA has been in contact with a bottled water supplier to ensure sufficient supplies for patients, Clark said, and an action plan was put in place on Tuesday night.

"Oh, it will be tens of thousands, if not more," Clark said, referring to the number of bottles of water the WRHA ordered for patients. "You look at the size of Health Sciences Centre, for example. They ordered a significant quantity of water as a backup to the supply they already had."

There have been no known reports of anyone getting sick from consuming city water.

But the city is emphasizing that Winnipeggers should keep boiling their water and not panic.

Food safety expert weighs in

According to Winnipeg food safety expert Rick Holley, water that tests negative for E. coli on Wednesday is not necessarily safe.

Six out of 39 samples tested positive for bacteria on Tuesday, triggering the citywide boil-water advisory.

Holley, also a professor at the University of Manitoba, said it is hard to believe testing errors are the reason for the results.

"If we gloss it over again saying it is lab error without conclusively establishing that that is the situation, we are heading down a dangerous road," Holley said.

Holley said that people don't have to worry about boiling water they aren't ingesting, but he added those who are immunocompromised, the very young, and the very old should take extra precautions.

Schools turn off taps

Schools throughout Winnipeg turned off their taps after the boil-water advisory came into effect.

Parents were asked to send their children to school with bottled water, or water that has been properly boiled and cooled at home.

Megan Turner with Making Roots Matter Montessori Centre said she was concerned the preschool could run out of water to give kids.

"My biggest fear isn't that we can't handle it, it's that we'll run out of water," said Turner. "We can only boil water so fast. Is it safe to be asking staff to boil water and bring it into school? How does that work?"

Turner said the school was boiling water Wednesday, but it also got its hands on a few cases of water Tuesday night

"We're also constantly boiling water," said Turner. "We're using this to wash the dishes just as an extra precaution and we'll also use it to do any kind of food prep."

The main valves for all fountains and sinks in the school were shut off at the source just to be safe, she said.

At the University of Winnipeg, plastic wrap covered a water fountain in the soccer complex.

Water fountains and bottle-filling stations have also been turned off at Red River College, where food services are limited as a result of the advisory.

Staff have provided residents with bottled water at the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, where culinary, hospitality and baking programs are held.

Companies work to keep supply available

Bottled water has been scarce in Winnipeg after a run on stores on Tuesday night.

Winnipeggers bought up huge numbers of bottled water from stores across the city Tuesday night after a boil-water advisory was issued. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

Winnipeg's head office for World of Water on Keewatin Street usually closes at 4:30 p.m. but on Tuesday the office stayed open until midnight filling bottles for their outlets around the city. On Wednesday, employees were on the job at 6 a.m., two hours earlier than their regular start time.


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