Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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How Foul Was That Water?

The lead headline (Oct. 1) in the Martha's Vineyard Times was dramatic: "Oak Bluffs water fouled." So was the subhead: "Coliform contamination requires water to be boiled."

I read the whole long story, beginning to end. I learned that a "boil water order" issued by the state's Department of Environmental Protection could be lifted by Oct. 2. I learned that tests made earlier in the week were "free of bacteria." I learned that the trouble started on Sept. 24 when "routine monthly sampling showed the presence of coliform bacteria in the water." The article added, helpfully, that "coliform bacteria are naturally present in the environment and are used by environmental officials as an indicator that other, potentially more harmful, bacteria may be present."

I read on, and on. I learned a lot about who knew what when, and especially who didn't know what in a timely fashion. I learned that "literally thousands of people" got the news via Sharky's Cantina." I learned that the Boston Globe had screwed up one detail and that the Vineyard Gazette had screwed up another. I learned of the challenges the "boil water" order had posed to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

What I didn't learn was what danger coliform bacteria in the drinking water poses to those who drink the water, and how this might vary depending on the age or health of the person doing the drinking. Given the delay in dissemination of the "boil water" order, it seems that hundreds if not thousands of Oak Bluffs residents must have been drinking unboiled water. Have any of them suffered any ill effects?

The only ill effect reported was indirect but disastrous. A house burned down because the householder was under the impression that "boil water" applies to bathing water as well as drinking water and the pots were left on the stove too long. It's not hard to draw a connection between the "boil water" order and the destruction of a house, but the important connection is not the most obvious one. Neither the Department of Environmental Protection nor the Oak Bluffs Water Department is responsible for the fire, though they aren't totally blameless either.

The real problem is that we -- on Martha's Vineyard as well as in the rest of the country -- have become a jumpy and easily frightened people. We overreact to "boil water" orders and swine flu warnings, to terrorist threats, Internet virus warnings, and rumors that the president wasn't born American. We don't have the knowledge to parse the information we take in, or the patience to learn what we need to know. "When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." That's us.

A population that scares easily is going to get suckered by rumor after rumor, and -- more seriously -- it's a sitting duck for the next demagogue who rides into town and promises to make us safe. I can inform myself about and take precautions against contaminated water, swine flu, deer ticks, and suicide bombers, but there's just about nothing I can do to protect myself from a hysteria-prone citizenry. And that's scary.


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