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October 02, 2009
The lead story in this week's Martha's Vineyard Times was dramatically headlined "Oak Bluffs water fouled." The subhead continues: "Coliform contamination requires water to be boiled." Who did the fouling was never specified.
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 today. I learned that tests made on Monday and Tuesday of this week were "free of bacteria." I learned that things went screwy last week, when on Sept. 24 "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 indicated 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 first learned of the water problems Friday night in text messages or emails from 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, even though I read the whole, long article, 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 in the Martha's Vineyard Times was not mentioned in "Oak Bluffs water fouled." A picture, however, did appear just above the headline. It showed two firefighters on the roof of a house that was in the process of being destroyed by fire. The fire started because the householder put four pots of water on the stove to boil so she could give her kids a bath. She was under the impression that "boil water" applies to bathing water as well as drinking water. She left the pots on the stove and forgot about them. Apparently the water boiled away, and, the Oak Bluffs fire chief was reported as saying, "It got hot enough, the counter caught on fire, and it went right up the cabinets." The house was a total loss. Fortunately no one was hurt.
Who hasn't left a kettle or a pot on the stove too long and only realized her mistake when an acrid smell started wafting through the house? Over the years I've come home more than once to find a gas burner left on or a candle burning on the table. It's happened to most of us, and most of us have been lucky. This particular family wasn't. 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 and rumors that the president wasn't born American. We don't have the knowledge to parse these threats and rumors, 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 and take precautions with 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.