10:23 PM 10/3/1996
Milwaukee's nightmare
Scores die from illnesses linked to contaminated water

Copyright 1996 Hearst Newspapers

MILWAUKEE -- In the summer of 1993, two girls were already battling life-taking diseases --Becky Furmann, AIDS, and Julie Drews, cancer -- when another illness took over and wiped out any chance they had.

That illness was
cryptosporidiosis. It was caused by a microscopic parasite that contaminated Milwaukee's tap water in late March and early April.

An estimated 403,000 residents, one-fourth of those in the metro area, got sick in what became the worst waterborne disease outbreak in the United States. They experienced severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

Dozens -- probably more than 100 -- died. Most, like Becky and Julie, had immune systems already weakened by AIDS or chemotherapy.

"The outbreak changed our lives forever," says Paul Nannis, Milwaukee's health commissioner. "In some ways, we've become consultants to the world."

U.S. government scientists, not to mention researchers and water operators from abroad, have since studied why the outbreak happened and how it can be prevented.

They've learned that heavy rainfall brought unusually high levels of the parasite, cryptosporidium or crypto, to the water from Lake Michigan. The city's Howard Avenue plant, despite meeting federal safety standards at the time, was unable to filter all of it.

Where exactly the parasite came from remains a mystery. Possible sources include nearby slaughterhouses, a sewage treatment plant or cattle along two rivers that flow into Milwaukee's harbor.

Investigators also discovered later that a key monitoring system in the water utility wasn't working because it had been installed improperly.

Residents drank the contaminated water for about two weeks before city leaders figured out what had gone wrong, issued a boil-water alert and shut the plant.

While a Milwaukee-size outbreak happens rarely, the prospect that it could happen somewhere else makes many water officials nervous.

To prevent a repeat, Milwaukee's leaders have adopted a tap-water policy that can be summed up in two words: Never again.

They approved an $89 million package of water upgrades that includes better filtration and constant water monitoring. In 1998, they'll begin ozonation -- a treatment that uses ozone gas, a powerful disinfectant, to kill pests in water.

They offer free in-home testing of some taps. They also do free stool samples, necessary to diagnose a crypto infection.

Nevertheless, more than three years later, many residents remain wary.

"Milwaukee is so sensitive to this that whenever anyone gets sick, they think it's cryptosporidiosis," says Kathy Blair, the city's epidemiologist.

For some, the doubts are just too great. "Wherever I go, I won't trust tap water," says Janet Drews, a tall, slim woman in her late 30s who lives in the nearby suburb of Hartland.

Drews watched her teen-age daughter Julie, who was undergoing chemotherapy in a Milwaukee hospital during the outbreak, deteriorate rapidly after drinking the city's tap water.

Julie would buckle up in pain from intense stomach cramps. She had bloody stools, her weight plummeted and she became so weak, her mom had to carry her from the car to the hospital entrance.

Drews, in a desperate search for a cure, scoured medical books and tried every treatment possible to save her firstborn child.

Nothing helped. Julie died in October, six months later. She was only 17.

Drews, now raising two younger daughters, has since placed a water filter on her kitchen faucet. But she wonders how much it can protect them.

For others in the Milwaukee area, who felt the city was slow to act, there's still anger.

So far, 125 people have sued the city in 22 separate petitions. But almost 5,000 plan to file a class-action lawsuit that -- if approved by judges -- will be the largest in Wisconsin history.

Larry Furmann says he used to be very angry about the water. "But where do you go with the rage?" he asks. He adopted Becky -- who was born with the virus that causes AIDS -- as a baby.

Furmann says he no longer blames Nannis or the mayor or any other individual. "All of us are responsible because no one gave a damn about the water."

Like many in Milwaukee, he paid dearly for that complacency. He and his partner Ric watched their daughter suffer through a 21-month-long illness.

Becky was still a bubbly 3-year-old when she was diagnosed with cryptosporidiosis in July 1993. She enjoyed eating, especially her favorites like spaghetti. After the infection, she couldn't eat; she would just throw up. When it first hit, she had 22 bowel movements in one day.

Even after she got an intravenous line to provide continuous morphine and nutrition, the foul diarrhea would leak out of her diaper and seep through her nightgown.

She lost layers of skin on her bottom, creating more discomfort.

"No child should have to go through that," says Ric. "When your little girl looks up to you and says, `Daddy, fix it, it hurts,' and you can't, it breaks your heart."

When Becky was nearing the end, her parents told her not to fear, that they would hold her until Jesus came for her.

She died in April 1995 at age 4. Hundreds of Milwaukee residents, touched by her irrepressible spirit, came to her memorial service.

"She's in a better place now,"Furmann says.

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