E. coli in fluid dripping from New Mexico garbage truck

Dear PharmMom,

Your daughter-in-law found this one on your local TV news station:

TULAROSA, N. M. (KRQE-KBIM) - Fluid leaking onto city streets from a contract garbage truck has tested positive for the E. coli bacteria, according to the town's mayor.

Alamo Disposal has been picking up the trash for many in Tularosa for the last three years. Recently resident and city officials noticed something leaking from a truck into the middle of the street.

Tularosa Mayor Ray Córdova then inspected the vehicle and smelled something extremely foul coming from it. That's when he told residents to take samples of the fluid so he could send it off to a lab for testing.

Those tests came back positive for the E. coli bacteria. . .

. . .On Thursday Alamo Disposal owner Art Cardiel said the leak came from a crack in the truck. However he also said believes the E. coli is coming from the bacteria in people's trash and not the truck itself.

"In this area, a lot of people grow their own fruit because there's a lot of water," Cardiel said. "Now how am I supposed to have any control over what I put in my truck that comes out of their trash cans?"

"I'm abhorred about it," Córdova said. "I don't like it, and I don't want it. . .

. . ."I spoke to him on the phone and said this has got to stop," Córdova added. "I said can't even allow your trucks into the city limits if that's what they're doing."

The New Mexico Environmental Department has given the owner 10 days to fix the crack in his truck.

But the mayor and trustees will meet on Sept. 23 to decide if they want to terminate the contract.

There have been no reports of any residents coming down with E. coli from the fluid.

Two sentences: 1) The E. coli is coming from the dog and cat poo that is dumped into household trash. 2) The fluid is harmless unless you drink it or put it on a piece of fruit.

The article is currently followed by 15 comments of various degrees of comedic creativity. For example, when has anyone not smelled a foul odor coming from a garbage truck?

I won't even get into the issue of the strain of E. coli that might be coming from the garbage truck.

i-379da6040fc00c100f4bade5417cad1c-Shorewood Hills WI garbage truck.gif

Of course, the hysteria resulting from this story reflects our failure to teach science to the public, either in schools or thereafter, and help people understand what is dangerous and what is not. It also doesn't help that KRQE-TV anchor Kim Vallez sensationalized this case by leading into the report with, "Tularosa residents have been exposed to E. coli and it has nothing to do with anything they ate."

I'm sorry to be so crude, but they are also exposed to E. coli every time they wipe their butts.

I'm also disappointed in the reporter, Heather Burke, who did not contact an expert from the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology or Division of Infectious Diseases at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and College of Medicine to put the risks in perspective. It took me about 30 seconds to find a couple of scientists and docs, and their phone numbers, who could've certainly gotten an opinion in before the story deadline.

Alamo Disposal owner Mr Art Cardiel might care to consult with one of these experts before the city cancels his company's contract.

Or maybe someone out there should just call my Mom - she'll set those people straight.

Then again, I warn you that you don't want her showing up at the 23 Sept meeting of the mayor and trustees.

Photo credit: Village of Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin, Village Heritage Gallery Photo #29; photographer not identified. Shorewood Hills was the childhood home of Olympic speed skaters, Eric and Beth Heiden.

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Don't tell the New Mexicans but...there's e. coli in their armpits!

By ronathan richardson (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

Most Americans don't know their kitchen sink harbors a greater panoply of microbes than their toilet.

But then American science teaching is also in the toilet.

By Ken Shabby (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

Abel Pharmboy, I hope you write a letter to the news station as well as making this post. You could save the Tularosans a lot of trouble.

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

I suspect that things are even worse than the good residents fear: the truck's vile exudate almost certainly contains chemicals!

Take a swab from your hands, culture it - you'll find e.coli and a whole bunch of bacterial buddies.

Now go and wash your hands.
Repeat process.
You'll still find e.coli friends, albeit in smaller quantities. I did this in biology class when I was ~14.

We are full of and covered in bacteria. We'd be in serious trouble if we weren't.

If everyone got to play with agar plates in school like I did, then everyone would appreciate that bacteria are everywhere.

geez, it's not like this stuff spontaneously generates inside the confines of the garbage truck. of course it's coming from someone's trash- everyone's trash. now let's just hope this discovery doesn't lead to a witch hunt to find the dirty e.coli disposer. they'd be in for a mighty surprise to find their entire city is contaminated...

Someone please pass this along:

The likely source of the e coli is not the fruit & vegetable waste, but disposable diapers that are in the mixed waste stream. The "fluid" probably does come from food waste, but the bacteria come from the diapers.

The "crack in the truck" is almost certainly the seam between the tailgate assembly and the truck body, not a crack in the truck body floor, and the refuse company guy probably assumed the city officials understood what he meant.

There is no way to fix that, any more than there's a way to fix the fact that those trucks make a certain amount of noise while going about their work. The tailgate is under pressure from the compressing mechanism, which in today's refuse collection vehicles compresses the load by a factor of 4 to 1 (that is, 100 cubic yards of refuse from the household bins, becomes 25 cubic yards in the truck).

Even with tight tailgate clamps and rubber gaskets between tailgate and body, the fact is that the pressure of the refuse will push on the tailgate and the seal to the body will never be perfect. Thus liquids will always find a way to leak out. This is the case for 100% of refuse collecting vehicles without exception: it's inherent in the nature of the technology.

For comparison, when you stuff your carry-on suitcase with clothes etc. and pack it down to make it all fit, you're typically compressing at a ratio of about 1.3 to 1, and you can see how hard it is to get the darn suitcase to close up properly.

Now imagine squishing poopy diapers and drippy food waste together by a factor of 4:1, and you can see where the problem comes from.

So rather than fire the refuse contractor, I have a better idea. Outlaw those damn disposable diapers altogether, and keep the poo out of the mixed waste stream. People can use cloth diapers, and have diaper services pick up the poopy ones & leave clean ones, just as they did 30 - 40 years ago. Poo does not belong in the mixed waste stream, period. It belongs down the sewer, or in a controlled collection & laundering system that ultimately puts it down the sewer.

And yeah, three cheers for scientific literacy. Anyone running for public office ought to have to take a general science & technology exam and post the results for the voters to see. After a brief period during which the anti-science crowd will chuckle as they vote for the obscurantist ticket and then get rewarded with cholera outbreaks and bridges falling down, the public will wise up and throw the ignoramuses out, in favor of people who understand that the world is neither flat nor 6,000 years old.

Though, you have to give the city council guy credit for one thing anyway. At least he understands that germs cause disease. Given some of the people running for public office nowadays, even that much can't be taken for granted!

By industry techn… (not verified) on 21 Sep 2008 #permalink

I left the following comment at KQRE's thread attached to the story. I doubt that it will do much good, but we need to speak up where we can. Thanks, Abel, for the link!


As sherlock and others have noted, E. coli is a normal component of everyone's intestinal flora. You, me, the mayor of Tularosa -- we all have it. What's disappointing is not that the mayor was unaware of this; it is that the KRQE news team couldn't even spend two minutes researching the subject before releasing this story. From Wikipedia:

Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some, such as serotype O157:H7, can cause serious food poisoning in humans, and are occasionally responsible for costly product recalls. The harmless strains are part of the normal flora of the gut, and can benefit their hosts by producing vitamin K or by preventing the establishment of pathogenic bacteria within the intestine.

The distinction between harmful strains of E. coli and the bacterium generally is very important to public health, and the public deserves to be educated on the subject, not falsely alarmed. You, a news source who should have known better, let us down on this one.

Geez. Of all the crap that can leak out of a garbage truck, E. coli is about the most benign thing I can think of.