Cape Town - A river flowing into scenic Gordon’s Bay has been found to contain potentially deadly levels of E.coli bacteria. It has sparked calls from the ANC for City of Cape Town officials to take immediate action and prevent life-threatening infections, especially among people with low immune systems and those living with HIV.
The Sir Lowry’s Pass River was found on October 23 to have an E.coli count of 130 000 per 100ml at the point where it flows into Gordon’s Bay.
The test was confirmed by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).
This count is four times that found by a DA health fact-finding mission into borehole water at the poor community of Mokopane in Limpopo, where the E.coli count was 40 000 per 100ml.
DA health spokesman Dr Wilmot James described a count this high as “highly pathogenic and unfit for human or animal consumption”.
But he pointed out that some of the water at Mokopane was for drinking, whereas the water in the Sir Lowry’s Pass River was not intended for human consumption.
The results on the Sir Lowry’s Pass River show the E.coli count increases dramatically as the river winds down to the ocean after passing through an informal settlement 6km upstream.
The information comes two weeks after a False Bay fish exporter revealed he found dangerously high levels of E.coli in harders (mullet) tested in July.
E.coli, or Escherichia coli, is normally found in the intestines of people and animals. Most E.coli is harmless, but its presence indicates the presence of pathogenic (illness-causing) compounds.
The young, elderly, pregnant and those with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV, are particularly vulnerable.
“This could be devastating,” said the ANC’s acting spokesman Cobus Grobler. “An E.coli count that high is a potential killer, especially if you have TB or are HIV-positive, because you are then more prone to be infected.
“It can have severe, if not fatal, consequences. The city may not think it is serious but to the poor it is life-threatening,” said Grobler.
“The city seems to know there is a problem in that area, yet they are doing nothing. If this escalates they could find themselves legally liable.”
But mayoral committee member for health Benedicta Van Minnen said there was no need to be alarmed.
“The City of Cape Town cannot comment on these results as they were not analysed in the city’s laboratory and it is unclear how the samples were taken, stored and transported to the laboratory.”
She acknowledged that the count was over the limit for recreational water use as set by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry’s SA Water Quality Guidelines.
A single sample result should give an E.coli count of equal to or less than 1 000 per 100ml or it is unsafe for bathers and other water users. “However, the appropriate manner of testing is to weigh each single sample result against a number of fortnightly samples collected over three months.
“A single sample result does not really provide adequate information to draw any specific conclusions,” said Van Minnen.
Rivers passing through urbanised areas often had “background” pollution owing to contamination on hard surfaces that was washed into the river by rain. Blocked or overflowing sewers could also cause a problem.
“The water quality in the Sir Lowry’s River is therefore impacted to varying degrees at various locations. However, it does not impact on the overall water quality along the coastline. Bikini Beach is a Blue Flag-accredited beach and the water quality there is fine,” said Van Minnen.
“The water in the Sir Lowry’s River would be considered non-potable – it is not for consumption.”
The SABS report comes just three months after the DA embarked on a four-province water-testing tour in ANC municipalities.
The DA’s James, along with Kevin Mileham and Leon Basson, travelled across Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape investigating the quality of drinking water and water supplies.
This was sparked by an outbreak of diarrhoea in Brits in North West that affected more than 500 people and led to the deaths of at least three babies.
James described an E.coli count of 40 000 per 100ml in boreholes in the community of Mokopane in Limpopo as highly pathogenic and unfit for human or animal consumption. “That will kill you if you drink it.”
The count at Gordon’s Bay is more than three times higher than found at Mokopane.
The DA vowed to take legal action against the ANC-run municipalities where high E.coli counts were discovered.
But on Wednesday, James told the Cape Argus the Gordon’s Bay results needed to be tested over a period by the National Health Laboratory before confirmed as reliable.
“Our oversight visits to the provinces examined E.coli levels in drinking water. The Gordon Bay tests were of non-potable river water not intended for human consumption.
“It appears as if the river in question is polluted as a result of dumping and contamination practices of civilians and possibly businesses.”
He said the city ran educational programmes to promote public health.
“We can always do more – including post warnings – and I give you our assurance we will do whatever is appropriate under the circumstances.”