PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cape Coral's drinking water fouled by E. coli

E. coli seen under a powerful microscope
National Public Radio
E. coli seen under a powerful microscope

Cape Coral’s municipal drinking water supply is tainted with the intestinal bacteria E. coli, officials said Monday, and ordered the city’s 190,000 residents not to drink their tap water.

“Fecal coliforms and E. coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes,” officials said in a citywide boil notice warning. “Microbes in these wastes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. They may pose a special health risk for infants, young children, and people with severely compromised immune systems.”

E. coli was found in the water supply in two places during routine testing and announced Monday, but no details were released concerning where in the city the bacteria showed up, how prevalent the E. coli outbreak was, nor how the germs got into the drinking water supply.

Cape Coral officials said Monday that bottled water should be used for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and food preparation until further notice. Boiling the tap water for a full minute kills the bacteria and other organisms in the water and allows the water to be used after it cools.

The Florida Department of Health says signs and symptoms of an E. coli infection, after an average incubation of 3 to 4 days, include diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Fever is usually low-grade or absent, unlike most bacterial diarrheal illnesses. The health department said an average of 59 E. coli infections per year have been reported in Florida.

Cities and counties in South Florida use random testing of its water supplies to discover problems just like Cape Coral’s E. coli outbreak, and if found they issue drinking water warnings and boil-water notices as everyday tools to try and ensure people don’t get sick from tap water.

The testing and warnings are part of ongoing behind-the-scenes efforts by professional drinking water managers who work for local, state and the federal government, plus a network of independent water managers who are routinely brought in to spot-check the public systems and review water quality measures.

Anna Yeung-Cheung is a professor at Manhattanville College in New York State and an expert in microbiology and infectious diseases in humans
Anna Yeung-Cheung
Anna Yeung-Cheung is a professor at Manhattanville College in New York State and an expert in microbiology and infectious diseases in humans

Anna Yeung-Cheung is a professor at Manhattanville College in New York State and an expert in microbiology and infectious diseases in humans.

Yeung-Cheung has studied E. coli outbreaks similar to Cape Coral’s in similar cities and said it is hard to locate the source of the contamination – but imperative that it be found.

“This is not good,” she said. “They need to investigate. It’s a lot of work. Especially in coastal towns. Especially in Florida.”

Yueng-Cheung said Cape Coral’s water managers need to do whatever it takes to figure out how E. coli got into the drinking water system because of the severity of the illnesses that could occur if the source is not found.

“It can take years to do all the work that it takes to discover what it is,” she said. “But they really need to find it out.”

Cape Coral pumps its drinking water from a brackish layer of water 700 hundred feet down in the Floridian Aquifer. The salts and other contaminants are removed by a reverse osmosis system, which is top technology that forces the water through thin membranes at high pressure squeezing out impurities and leaving behind clean, clear water.

Water layers underneath the surface in South Florida
Water layers underneath the surface in South Florida

Water managers have flushed the drinking water lines that were found to have E. coli and both the city’s water plants have raised the level of sanitizing chlorination in the drinking water.

“We are increasing sampling for coliform bacteria to the source of the contamination,” officials said in a news release Monday. “We will inform you when tests show no bacteria, and you no longer need to boil your water. We anticipate resolving the problem within the next 72 hours.”

For Cape Coral school students on Tuesday:

  • Water bottles will be delivered for students and staff.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available at each school.
  • Signs prohibiting the use of drinking water will be posted.
  • School cafeteria staff will boil water and ensure food is safe to eat.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.