The fridge of the Jalan household at Shankar Sagar Building, Breach Candy, always has a bottle of water ready for the thirsty. But it has never been a likely address for E Coli and other bacteria.
All that changed about two weeks ago.
The entire seven-member family fell ill with diarrhoea and vomitting, and many neighbours in the building followed. The water carried the smell of a drain. Software professional Anup Jalan (44) got a new purifier, residents started buying endless bottles of mineral water, and tankers were called in to replace the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) supply.
In June, drinking water at a place in D Ward — the civic division in which plush Breach Candy falls — tested positive for E Coli bacteria, a creature of the sewage which can cause gastroenteritis, bloody diarrhoea and severe kidney damage. Ten places in the city have tested positive for E Coli, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) guards strictly against.
In the tests carried out by the BMC itself on 1,300 samples, drinking water in 80 places in the city have been found highly contaminated and “unfit for drinking”. The WHO recommends that drinking water should have no E Coli bacteria and the level of coliform bacteria in it should be less than 10 per 100 ml of water.
E Coli-infested drinking water has been found in places as diverse as Sea King building and Narayan Niwas in plush Colaba to Laxmi Building in crowded Byculla and one in Dahisar in the northern suburbs. No wonder so far 1,700 people have been treated for gastroenteritis in the city's 24 civic hospitals since the onset of the monsoon.
“Our pipelines are over 100 years old. Sometimes the problem is not in our supply but the water tanks of the societies. Whenever the complaint is received we flush out the water, ask the society to carry out chlorination besides plugging the point of contamination,” said BMC’s hydraulic engineer M. Kamble.
Head of BMC’s epidemiological cell Neera Kewalramani said: “Something should be done immediately. We did a house-to-house survey of areas where E Coli was found and advised people to boil drinking water.”
Experts say E Coli germs arrive when drinking water gets mixed with sewage water. Civic officials, requesting anonymity, said this was common in Mumbai during the monsoon.
“There is no proven research that shows filtered water is totally safe. The safest thing is to boil water for 10 minutes,” Dr Akash Rajpal, medical superintendent of L.H. Hiranandani Hospital. He said one could get infected even by eating fruits or vegetables washed in contaminated water.