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Published: Wednesday, 8/18/2004

E. coli bacteria detected in wells at 2 sites; cause of illnesses not yet confirmed

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

State and Ottawa County authorities investigating an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease said yesterday that well water at two food-service businesses on South Bass Island have tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

Although officials said they have not identified a cause for the outbreak, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the operators of the Heineman Winery and the Press House Corner Market to stop using their septic systems.

They really can t use the water out of the wells at this point, Ohio EPA spokesman Dina Pierce said.

The winery has remained open and was using bottled water, Ms. Pierce said. But the operator of the market told The Blade yesterday that he has shut down his business.

The most important thing for me is, if there is a problem and that has not been said yet that we rectify it, said Joseph Suttmann. That s the main thing. For 13 years, I ve been a year-round resident here, two children, and we get around. And our concern is with the community.

Despite the discovery, the EPA cautioned that it may not be the cause of the outbreak that has sickened hundreds since July, when victims first reported problems.

We re not saying these two businesses are the source of the outbreak, Ms. Pierce said. I understand there s been some people who have been connected to these places, but there s also people who have been sick who did not have a connection.

Ms. Pierce said authorities are investigating the possibility that the outbreak has more than one source.

The Ottawa County health department had confirmed 112 cases of the gastrointestinal illness as of yesterday. In addition, six health department employees were working their way through a backlog of 90 other people who called with possible symptoms.

The health department began receiving reports in early July of people experiencing 24-hour bouts of nausea, chills, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting, accompanied by diarrhea in some cases.

Nancy Osborne, Ottawa County health commissioner, said her department has received sporadic reports of illness involving people who have not been to South Bass Island. But the department is still focusing its investigation there. The overwhelming majority of the cases involve island residents or visitors, she said.

In letters sent last week to the winery and the market, the EPA s division of surface water cited the outbreak of gastrointestinal illness among residents and visitors to the island, which includes the popular tourist village of Put-in-Bay.

The EPA believes the presence of E. coli in the wells could be caused by failed septic systems and instructed both businesses to plug their septic tank outlets and have contents trucked to the village wastewater treatment plant.

The positive test on Mr. Suttmann s well was done last month. He said two subsequent tests have been negative. Mr. Suttmann said he serves prepackaged food such as hot dogs and canned and bottled beverages.

Everything we use is throwaway, he said. The only contact one could have with my water is through hand-washing in the bathroom sink.

Ms. Pierce said yesterday it was unclear whether the businesses wells had undergone regular tests for fecal coliform bacteria, which can indicate the presence of E. coli. Such tests are required for well water that is served to the public.

These facilities weren t on our radar screen, Ms. Pierce said. We didn t know they existed because we didn t know they had public facilities.... So they probably weren t having regular checks. We didn t know about them until this past week or so.

According to the letters from EPA, the agency allowed Mr. Suttmann to add a temporary standing bar at his carryout in November while he built a restaurant and bar next door. The agency said it urged him to connect into an extension of the village sanitary sewage system that was scheduled for completion this fall; it has not received a permit for such work.

The county told the EPA that the market is getting more business than expected, likely causing overuse of the existing septic system.

Reached at home last night, Mr. Suttmann said he shut the market Monday while waiting for the EPA to inspect his septic system.

Edward Heineman, operator of the winery, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ms. Osborne said her agency is awaiting test results on samples sent to the Ohio Department of Health before identifying the illness and its cause.

Jackie Riley of West Toledo said her 8-year-old daughter became violently ill last week after returning from a visit to nearby Catawba Island Township and the Marblehead peninsula.

Ms. Riley said the illness struck her daughter with frightening quickness and ferocity.

It was nasty, she said. [It] pretty much didn t quit all night long.

Contact Steve Murphy at:smurphy@theblade.comor 419-724-6078.



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