A water sample taken from a spigot at Pearl Harbor Elementary School this week tested positive for coliform bacteria, which could indicate the water was contaminated with soil or feces, the Navy told the school on Thursday.

In the wake of a series of recent water main breaks, the Navy set up a portable water tank for the school on Sunday. In a letter to the school’s principal, the Navy public works department said that a water sample taken on Wednesday tested positive for “total coliform,” which is used as an indicator of contamination.

“Though a positive result for coliform increases risk for gastrointestinal illness (vomiting, diarrhea, upset stomach), it generally does not cause symptomatic illness,” Navy Public Works Officer Robert Kleinman wrote.

Hawaii Department of Health personnel collected water samples at Kapilina Homes on Dec. 9 in response to concerns about the Red Hill water contamination crisis.
The problem should be isolated to Pearl Harbor Elementary, according to the education department. Courtesy: DOH/2021

If total coliform is high, it is possible that harmful viruses, bacteria, and parasites could be found in the water, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.

There have been no reports of illness at this time, according to the Hawaii Department of Education. But the Navy advised Principal Shannon Tamashiro to encourage anyone with gastrointestinal symptoms to seek medical attention.

Water samples taken from the tap on Sunday tested negative for coliform and E. coli, according to Navy spokesman Charles Anthony. The sample taken from the tap on Wednesday tested negative for E. coli but positive for coliform, he said. Samples taken from the same tap on Thursday were received on Friday and came back negative for coliform.

In a statement, Anthony said there are multiple reasons why a sample taken from “a spigot exposed to the elements” would test positive.

“Water in the buffalo (tank), which is used primarily to wash hands, was certified clean before it left Schofield Barracks,” he said. “No other water buffalo tested positive. A new, sanitized water buffalo was also provided to the school for hand washing.”

He noted the water tank was separate from the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system.

Derek Inoshita, a DOE spokesman, said it’s unlikely anyone drank the contaminated water. Since the Navy contaminated its drinking water system with fuel last year, the school has been using bottled water for drinking, “minimizing the exposure risk to the bacteria,” he said in a statement.

There is no risk to other schools at this time, according to Inoshita.

“The source was the portable tank, so no other schools are affected,” he said. “It should be clarified that the portable water tank is a self-contained, self-service unit that is not connected to or pumped into the school’s water line.”

On Friday afternoon, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam rescinded the boil water advisory that’s been in place since last Friday. Multiple tests showed no bacteria present in the system, the base said in a press release.

“As the system returns to full functionality, residents may initially see sediment in their water,” the press release said. It added that the CDC recommends that users flush water lines for five minutes and replace any ice after the advisory was lifted.

The military’s distribution of bottled water will stop at 6 p.m. Friday, the press release said.

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