Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Operations at the Cowee School and Heritage Center were temporary suspended last week after E. coli was found in the water.

“As a permitted Temporary Food Event (TFE), MCPH Environmental Health Staff routinely collects a water sample from Cowee School’s well,” said Kyle Jennings, REHS, Environmental Health Section Administrator. “On Sept. 7, Cowee School’s water sample tested positive for E. coli bacteria.  The results were reported to Jim Kinard, the TFE applicant, Stacy Guffey with the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center Advisory Board, and the Department of Agriculture.  MCPH’s Environmental Health Staff made recommendations to identify the source of contamination and ways to permanently fix the problem.  MCPH’s Environmental Health staff has advised Mr. Kinard and Mr. Guffey of processes and restrictions to put into place to avoid contamination to the public.”

Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short, is a fairly common bacterium. There are hundreds of different strains of E. coli. Some are harmless while others cause serious illness. Non-pathogenic strains of E. coli — those that do not cause disease — are normal inhabitants of the intestinal tract in humans and animals.

Jennings said that he recommended that an ultraviolet light be installed on Cowee School’s well system to kill any bacteria present, which Bob Mccollum, chair of the Cowee Board of Directors said was immediately addressed.

“We are currently going through the required treatment and testing protocol,” said  McCollum. “We are also working with the Macon County Health and Maintenance Departments on the installation of a state-of-the-art ultraviolet light treatment system to prevent any future water quality issues. Until that installation is completed next week, we have suspended all kitchen operations, shut off drinking water fountains and rented sanitary hand-washing stations.”

Not all E. coli is harmful to human, in fact, most are harmless and some are even beneficial to humans. They help in synthesizing Vitamin K and B complex and prevent harmful bacteria from colonizing the gut. They also assist in food digestion and absorption.

When harmful, E. coli commonly causes infections of the urinary tract in people not admitted to hospital (non-nosocomial). It is also the cause of various other infections, such as food poisoning, septicaemia, neonatal meningitis and gastroenteritis.

County manager Derek Roland said that the county was immediately made aware of the contamination and will continue to work with the board of health on updates as the issue is addressed and corrected.