For weary residents of Walkerton, the E.coli nightmare continues
By THANE BURNETT -- Toronto Sun
Some things leave a water mark that doesn't fade.
Earlier this week, Canadian Press wire service reported that after an exhaustive 21/2-year criminal investigation into the Walkerton water tragedy, police and the Crown are nearing a decision whether to press charges. The OPP probe began in the now infamous month of May 2000, as this town of 5,000 was reeling with the deadly consequences of the water-borne E. coli outbreak.
A usually quiet retreat in southwestern Ontario -- a place few Canadians had ever heard of before the deaths of seven locals and the contaminating of more than 2,300 others -- the name of Walkerton is now, and forever, synonymous with poison.
But while infamous, most consider Walkerton a tragedy that was laid to rest. But there's a lingering, equally insidious side to the outbreak.
That many Walkerton residents consider themselves walking wounded. That the physical aches and pains, for many, have not gone away over time.
Knowing how many people are suffering long-term effects of the outbreak is a fool's game, say officials.
While these people may make up the most poked, prodded and tested community in Canada -- a large lab dish set in the middle of crop fields -- figuring out cause and effect is made difficult because of issues of financial compensation, the psychological impact and ailments which would have crept into town anyway.
SENT TO SPECIALISTS
So far, a year into a seven-year probe, investigators with The Walkerton Health Study have tested almost 4,000 people. Of that number, 1,195 have been sent to specialists for followups.
"Someone may be fine in year one, but experience liver failure in year four," said Ruby Gordon, spokesman for the Health Study.
However, it'll be impossible to draw a link from a tap to everyone who feels their health has been ruined.
Audrey Holliday recalls stopping for a man, during the outbreak, waving his arms on the outskirts of town.
"He asked how he should drive past Walkerton safely," she recalled yesterday from her home here. "I stood amazed, then said, 'Roll up your windows and drive quickly through. I think you'll be safe.' "
Audrey may have wished she, and her family, had taken the same sarcastic advice. Since that May 2000 long weekend -- they had just moved into town -- they have been plagued by health concerns.
The hardest hit has been her 36-year-old son, Jeff, who now has to live at home because he's so frail.
Diagnosed with diabetes 18 years ago, his health, before the tragedy, was apparently fine. He worked long hours as a courier.
But since the exposure, he's become brittle with serious bowel problems, the need for two root canals and eye problems. He's passed large amounts of blood through both ends of his body.
Most of his pains can be blamed on his diabetes. But he believes the ravages of the bad water turned his clockwork system upside down.
"They say I have a bug in my blood, but can't say what kind of bug it is," he explained.
"(Since May 2000) I've been in hospital more times than you've been to the bathroom."
JUST A SHELL
Audrey is convinced the deadly water has reduced Jeff to a shell of his former healthy self.
"I would just like someone to tell us what we can do to make him healthy," she said, tears on her cheeks.
Pointing in all directions, she can list a directory of neighbours who have similar, lasting health effects.
Ron Fisk plays the organ in his church. But there are days when his left side is almost paralyzed with pain. Since May 2000 he's experienced fatigue, stomach problems, arthritis and recently doctors removed two lumps from his colon.
"I've been on anti-depressants -- I couldn't handle the stress," said the 55-year-old former court reporter.
There have been times when "I couldn't even open the cap on a bottle of water. Just no strength."
For the next six years, doctors will continue to keep Fisk, and others here, under a microscope as they track the damage the outbreak left behind.
Because Walkerton -- the criminal investigation aside -- isn't over yet.
"We're all guinea pigs," said Fisk.
Some things leave a water mark that can't be washed away.