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AK, Rural water storage risks explored

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    Rural water storage risks explored HEALTH: Home containers blamed for spread of illnesses in villages. By Elizabeth Manning Anchorage Daily News
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2001
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      Rural water storage risks explored HEALTH: Home containers blamed for spread of illnesses in villages.

      By Elizabeth Manning Anchorage Daily News
      (Published: November 1, 2001)

      Even though nearly three-quarters of rural households in Alaska now have indoor plumbing, village families across the state still face health risks from drinking water stored in home containers, experts in the field told a conference in Anchorage this week.

      Families that live in homes without indoor plumbing usually haul water from public water spigots at community wash houses or from traditional sources such as rivers, ponds, snow or ice. Often, they store the water in large plastic containers such as trash cans equipped with plastic dippers.

      The water sources themselves often don't pose a problem, the experts said. But health risks do exist from the way people store water in their homes. Problems arise when people set dippers down on contaminated surfaces and then put them back in the water or scoop unwashed hands into water cans.

      Primitive water and sewage disposal systems can lead to a range of health dangers, from infectious diseases such as hepatitis A and viral meningitis to increased spread of common ailments like colds and the flu. Alaska villages have long experienced high rates of these ailments, and state, federal and local governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades to bring more modern water and sewer systems to the Bush.

      Yet in many villages, people continue relying on water hauled by hand and kept in containers in homes.

      "In most cases, the traditional water sources aren't bad but as soon it gets into the house, it goes downhill fast," said Bill Stokes, a rural environmental quality specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

      Stokes and other state and tribal officials discussed ways to make water storage safer at this week's Alaska Tribal Environmental Management Conference held at the Hotel Captain Cook. Suggestions included designing a better home water delivery system, educating villagers about safe water handling or chlorinating or boiling water before use. No final recommendations were made.

      Malcolm Ford of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service said the state has made significant progress toward providing all village homes with safe drinking water and flush toilets by 2005. But he said it may take longer to reach about 15 percent of homes in small, poor villages. In the meantime, Ford said, the state should consider economical ways to make home water systems safer.

      Even when centralized water is available, villagers sometimes trust traditional water sources over spigot water that may taste strongly of chlorine or is brown in color, conference participants said. And some families prefer to collect and haul water even when they have plumbing in their homes.

      A year ago, the Cooperative Extension Service sampled water sources and home water containers in three test villages over winter, early spring and summer. The study, conducted in Eek, Tanana and Shishmaref, found that total coliform and fecal coliform levels in water storage containers often exceeded safe levels for drinking water and occasionally even for swimming or boating.

      "It was a real wake-up call," said Nina Miller, a wellness coordinator with the Alaska Native Health Board who is originally from Tanana.

      Tanana has a central water source at the laundromat and some homes are now getting indoor plumbing. Still, Miller said, many families still get water from the river.

      Jennifer Demit, an environmental program coordinator with the Native Village of Shishmaref, said just a few families there haul water from the wash house. Most people instead still collect water from snow or from their basins connected to their roofs during the summer. But the study has changed people's attitudes, Demit said. Many Shishmaref families now leave dippers attached to water containers or add drops of chlorine to the water to make water safer, she said.

      Reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at emanning@... or 907 257-4323.

      Relevant Links:
      Village Safe Water Program, Department of Environmental Conservation
      - http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/
      Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation -
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