BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – A day after the United States Embassy sent out a health alert to its staff in Barbados, advising that the tap water may not be safe to drink, health authorities are insisting that the island’s water supply meets World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards.
Last Thursday, in a brief message that was posted on its website, the US Embassy said recent tests at several US Embassy residences revealed “bacteria at elevated levels in the tap water”.
As a precautionary measure, the US Embassy recommended to its staff that they boil their drinking water or use bottled water, and follow the US Centers for Disease Control directions on how to stay healthy and safe.
The Embassy did not mention the ongoing sewage spill on the south coast of the island, but the alert came two weeks after it issued another health alert about the overflow of raw sewage affecting the water quality at some beaches. That previous alert advised US citizens to beware of sewage in the streets and avoid water activities in the affected areas.
At a press conference called today, Minister of Foreign Affairs Senator Maxine McClean and Minister of Health John Boyce sought to assure that Barbados’ drinking water is safe.
Senator McClean maintained that the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) followed WHO protocols for testing the island’s drinking water supply, explaining that 50 samples were taken from the island’s distribution systems each week and sent to the Best-dos Santos Public Health Laboratory to be analyzed for pathogenic bacteria. In addition, testing was also carried out on site for free residual chlorine.
She said the sampling, which was five times more than required by the WHO, was supplemented by independent regulatory surveillance carried out across the island by the Environmental Health Department of the Ministry of Health.
The Minister further disclosed that samples from the island’s well sources were sent to the Government Analytical Laboratory for bacteriological and chemical analysis, and regulatory review of the samples by the Environment Protection Department indicated that, to date, the water quality is safe.
“We are assured by the relevant competent authorities that the drinking water supply in Barbados remains safe. The agencies will continue to monitor the water supply system to ensure compliance with WHO guidelines in the interest of public health,” she said.
Senator McClean revealed that she, Minister Boyce, the BWA General Manager, tourism officials and representatives of other relevant Government agencies met this morning with US Ambassador to Barbados, Linda Taglialatela, and other Embassy officials to discuss the alert.
“Let me emphasize that we were informed by the Embassy officials that the laboratory tests were negative for salmonella, coliform and E. Coli, which would be of primary public health concern,” she said, adding that the BWA and Ministry officials were also made aware at the meeting of the properties involved in the samples tested on behalf of the Embassy.
“I took the opportunity to ask the United States representatives to permit the collection of water samples on these properties, and in case of future tests, we have asked that there be simultaneous collection of samples.”
Senator McClean reported that the Embassy had agreed, going forward, to a collaborative process with the Ministry of Health and the BWA.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Anton Best, stressed the importance of further testing being done at those sites as a matter of urgency, noting that the samples were taken at five properties but the Ministry had not been provided with any information about the laboratory involved or the processes or methodologies employed.
Minister Boyce made it clear that his Ministry “was not in the business of hiding data in respect of Barbados’ water quality”.
“It is our job to make sure the health of the nation is protected and we will continue to maintain a healthy standard in our water supply,” he insisted.
Meantime, in a statement issued yesterday, the Ministry of Health reported that it was one restaurant responsible for the outbreak of gastroenteritis on the south coast over the Christmas and New Year period, and there was no link to the still unresolved sewage spill.
The Ministry said its epidemiological investigation concluded that the outbreak was “a localized food-borne disease outbreak at a specific food business”.
There were 35 confirmed cases of the illness during that period, with the latest being on January 3.
“No other clusters of similar illness were reported from elsewhere in the area of the sewage spill. No organisms were identified through laboratory testing. Therefore, the outbreak has not been linked to any particular food or beverage, or the sewage spill,” the Ministry said.
It emphasized that it was continuing to focus its resources on the south coast as it seeks to contain any threat to public health as a result of the sewage spill in the area.