The source of E. coli contamination in the water supply shared by Te Huruhi Primary and Waiheke High School remains a mystery. Photo Rose Davis

One case of gastroenteritis has been reported following water contamination at two Waiheke schools.

Auckland Regional Public Health Service is assessing whether the gastroenteritis is linked to contamination of water at Waiheke High or Te Huruhi Primary School or due to other causes.

Waiheke High School advised parents on 17 May that “significant E. coli contamination” had been detected in its water.

“The previous test at the beginning of term showed no contamination,” says principal Jude Young.

Te Huruhi has water supplied from the high school bore, which is treated before it is piped to the primary. Some water for the primary school is also collected from classroom roofs.
Te Huruhi principal Adam Cels says the primary school’s first reading indicating problems with the water appeared on 1 May.

Three weeks later, the cause of the E. coli in the water remains a mystery, says Mr Cels.
Neither of the principals responded to requests for information about the levels of E. coli found in the water.

Mrs Young sent a brief email, but did not respond to phone calls from Gulf News.
Waiheke Local Board chairperson Paul Walden suspects the cause of the contamination could be bird droppings on the high school roof. The high school’s water bore is on the hill above the septic tank system, which is hundreds of metres away, making contamination from sewage unlikely, Mr Walden says.

Parents of Te Huruhi pupils were informed that water was “compromised” on 2 May. At that stage, the tank water was treated and children were asked to bring drink bottles to school.
On 15 May, parents were informed that Aqualab tests continued to show the water was “unfit for drinking”. A drinking station was set up for children who forgot drink bottles and parents were advised that “consumption of the school water is not allowed”.

By 18 May, the primary school had emptied its water tanks and inspected them for possible sources of contamination, but nothing was found.

One tank was filled with clean water from a water delivery company, but has been used only for hand washing and toilet flushing.

Gutters were checked and cleared during the school holidays, just before the first tests showed water contamination.

The primary school has three filters and an ultra-violet water treatment system that have been checked weekly and are functioning normally, says Mr Cels. Signs have been put up, warning children not to drink water at the school.
The high school has also brought in fresh water for drinking and has provided hand sanitiser in the toilets.

“Our next priority is to locate the source of the contamination, clean and dose the tanks and make the water safe for drinking,” Mrs Young told parents in an email sent on 17 May.
Students report that the high school tuck shop was not informed and continued to wash plates and serve food using the contaminated water for several days after it was detected.
While some students were not drinking the water because it tasted like “crap”, others say they have suffered bouts of vomiting this term, but did not seek medical help.
Mr Cels says trying to run a school with 400 young children and no water has been challenging.

“It has taken a higher level of vigilance making sure the children were only cleaning their legs after the cross country run and not drinking the water and there have been extra pressures trying to identify the cause, reviewing the filtration systems and so on.
“It’s such a pain and there’s no rhyme or reason for it.”

The Ministry of Education felt it was not necessary to close the schools, given the steps taken to ensure only clean water is available.

The ministry is responsible for the water treatment infrastructure at the high school, but the school is responsible for managing the water supply for its needs and for the primary school, says ministry spokesperson Katrina Casey.

A new treatment plant has been installed and the high school is installing new filters and two ultra violet units to remove E. coli, Ms Casey says.
“We are supporting both schools to address this issue, with funding and contractors,” she says.

Escherichia coli (E.coli) causes diarrhoea and can make young children “very ill”, according to information provided by the public health service. The water borne bacteria can cause vomiting, headache, muscle pains, stomach cramps and fever. Symptoms usually appear two to 10 days after becoming infected and most people recover within 10 days. • Rose Davis

Subscribe and read Gulf News and Waiheke Weekender Online