More cases of E. coli reported in Ontario

As crews continued to flush and disinfect an Ontario town's water supply Friday, police began an investigation into what's believed to be the deadliest E. coli outbreak in Canadian history.

Some recent water samples still show signs of contamination, according to authorities. It could be at least another week before tap water in Walkerton is declared safe to drink again.

Meanwhile, other cases of E. coli infection were reported Friday in several cities, including Windsor, London, and Kitchener. In the Hamilton-Wentworth region, the medical officer warned people to boil the water before drinking cooking, washing, or bathing.

Five people have died in Walkerton, and more than a dozen residents mainly young children remain in hospital in serious or critical condition. Hundreds have also become painfully ill, with severe cramps, fever, nausea, and bloody diarrhea.

Regional health officials have accused Walkerton's Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of failing to warn people about the E. coli danger even though it knew as early as May 18 that the water was contaminated.

The Ontario Provincial Police, Ontario's chief coroner, and the provincial environment ministry are all conducting separate probes.

Allegations of a coverup

On Thursday, the region's medical health officer claimed a manager at the PUC knew that the water was contaminated but withheld the information for five days. By then, people had already been infected with E. coli.

Dr. Murray McQuigge, medical officer of health for Grey-Bruce County, said the town's Public Utility Commission assured him three times the water was fine. But when cases of bloody diarrhea continued, his office did its own lab tests and discovered the E. coli contamination.

McQuigge said the utility later told his office a machine that mixes chlorine into the water supply hadn't been working for some time.

"People have died. People may die yet," McQuigge said Thursday. "This could have been prevented."

Residents of Walkerton have been battling feelings of fear, anger and betrayal as they heard about the possibility that the crisis could have been controlled.

One man, Dieter Weiss, has started carrying a placard through the town in protest, arguing that all of southwestern Ontario is at risk. Weiss calls what happened a "disaster" damaging everything from tourism revenue to real estate values.

Class-action lawsuits launched

At least one lawyer has already filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a resident and her family.

Lawyer Scott Ritchie said his firm will be suing the town and the Public Utilities Commission alleging they were negligent in not notifying residents of a danger that was apparently known for days.

Other lawyers who specialize in class-action lawsuits say they've also been contacted by some residents.

The insurance company that covers Walkerton, which is a part of the municipality of Brockton, has sent a team of lawyers to the town to prepare for the legal actions.

There are fears more people will die or get sick because it can take more than a week for symptoms to appear.

Ottawa has approved an experimental drug for treating people infected with E. coli. Health Canada says a shipment of Synsorb Pk has been sent to Walkerton because the patients are in a life-threatening situation.

Doctors say the drug binds to E. coli toxins and then passes through the body.

Cause of the contamination

The province's environment ministry is testing the water supply, trying to find the source and state of the contamination.

Officials aren't sure how the outbreak started. There was extensive flooding in the area during a heavy rainstorm nearly two weeks ago. It's possible that sewage, or manure from farmers' fields, leaked into the wells that supply water to the area.

E. coli is fatal in about three per cent of cases. It causes kidney damage in 10 per cent of people who become infected.