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EDITORIAL - Preventing a public health crisis

Published:Tuesday | March 16, 2010 | 12:00 AM

We would expect that an official with oversight responsibility for public health and safety standards would gladly welcome the efforts of people who report if and where these standards are perhaps being breached and the health of the society being placed at risk.

That kind of community activism is, in the long run, not only good for the individual, but for the all-round benefit of the community. Such community policing helps to protect the health of individuals and saves the costs of treating potential epidemics when public-health standards fall.

Mr William Broughton, the director of environmental health in Jamaica's health ministry, we expect, would have no quarrel with the foregoing observation, notwithstanding his seeming negative tone to this newspaper when questioned about the likelihood of untreated water being sold to unsuspecting households.

Defensive reaction

We believe that any perceived defensive reaction by Mr Broughton could only have resulted from a misunderstanding, for which we choose to assume the blame. But that does not remove the danger posed to the public, or remove the responsibility of the public health authorities to act before we face a crisis.

It is a fact that Jamaica is currently facing a drought, and that the National Water Commission (NWC), the state-owned company that enjoys a near monopoly on the production and piped delivery of potable water, is having problems meeting the demands of its customers. Indeed, the NWC has been rationing its product, with the periodic withholding of supplies to its customers. It is called water lock-offs.

As is usually the case when there is demand for a product at a price that makes the business viable, new suppliers tend to enter the market. Bulk suppliers, with tanked trucks, have been selling water to people who need it. Most potable water is being sourced from NWC facilities.

However, there are credible reports that some truckers have been collecting water from rivers and springs and selling it as treated, potable water. In some cases, consumers would hardly know the difference until they become sick. The water, to the naked eye, may seem clean and pure.

Faecal coliform

But looks, as they say - and as this newspaper demonstrated when it had water from three sources tested at a government laboratory - can be deceiving. The faecal coliform count in all the samples was astronomically higher than anything approved by the authorities for bathing or human consumption. Yet, there is a strong likelihood that some unscrupulous suppliers may be passing off such contaminated water as being of the treated and potable variety.

It is unfortunate, we think, that Mr Broughton chose not to engage the reporters of this newspaper in the findings of the tests conducted on our behalf at a government laboratory, and in an internal report complaining of suppliers "harnessing drinking water from untreated and unlicensed sources".

It would seem to us that Mr Broughton, all things being equal, would wish to publicise and end such a practice and would, towards this end, consider the press a natural ally. Perhaps we mistake and mischaracterise what seems to be defensiveness.

We look forward to Mr Broughton's (re)-considered position and a statement by the health minister, Mr Ruddy Spencer.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.