More fallout from New Mexico garbage truck E. coli-gate - up from the comments

i-c74e99bc6de204906e5c9a87178b413f-Tularosa_edited-1.jpgHere's an update on E. coli-gate in Tularosa, NM:

Okay, so it's more than fluid - it's about a pint of sludge left in front of each house where the garbage truck stopped. But this is ridiculous:

[Tularosa resident Ken] Riedlinger took samples from the sludge puddle to the Diagnostic and Technology Center in Alamogordo and they found a huge amount of E. coli, he said.

"The upper tray reported it's infinite, the numbers were too great to count," Riedlinger said. "This is massive, massive E. coli. This is deadly stuff."

E. coli is a bacterium found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals, Riedlinger said, reading from an Internet report. Some strains of E. coli can lead to infection and death if ingested.

We here at Terra Sigillata World Headquarters were fortunate to have been visited by, not a garbage truck, but rather a couple of commenters who spoke with great authority on the issues at hand.

I first saw that jre from Lyons, Colorado, also commented at the KRQE-TV website but then also left a comment here:

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 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 [KRQE-TV], a news source who should have known better, let us down on this one.

(I swear that I had recognized those initials, jre, and now remember that he is an old buddy from the early blogging days with whom I held forth on Bristlecone Pine Scenic Area at Windy Ridge in Alma, Colorado, (the real South Park) home to trees aged 1,000 to 4,000 years old.)

And a longer, more detailed comment came from industry technical dude who describes the another poo source (I had said dog and cat poo but had blocked from my mind PharmKid's early days) and the engineering of a garbage truck:

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!

You gotta love the collective expertise of Terra Sig readers and commenters. I think I really need to get together a shop like DrugMonkey to send out commenter appreciation prizes to contributors like these.

Well, in the meantime, all of this E. coli talk makes me want to wash my hands and wipe off the keyboard.

Perhaps, though, we should send these comments to the mayor and trustees of the town of Tularosa, New Mexico - as well as to the reporters at KQRE-TV in Albuquerque.

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Praise alleys! This wouldn't happen in my neighborhood. Liquids, and even sludge, would soon disappear in the rocks, gravel and rubble of the alley where few would notice.

By Matt Hussein Platte (not verified) on 22 Sep 2008 #permalink

As a regular reader, seldom commenter, let me lend my dubious expertise in language the mayor and trustees of Tularosa can understand. Which is to say: layman's language. "If some fluid leaks out of a garbage truck, do not ingest any of it."

(dusts off hands) There! That ought to do it.

To tack on to decrepitoldfool's comment:

"If some fluid leaks out of a garbage truck, do not use it for fertilizer."

I am sure that many of you took microbiology back in the day and should be remembering another aspect of E. coli. It is not that some E. coli strains may be pathogens, it is the presence of E. coli can be an indication of fecal contamination, thus a possible source of other more important pathogens such as Salmonella.

By Plant Man of Florida (not verified) on 22 Sep 2008 #permalink

Thanks for the notice, Abel -- it has been a while!

I, too, was highly impressed with industry technical dude's short course on waste transport engineering.

Plant Man of Florida's recent comment is entirely consistent with the emerging theme here, viz.:

As centuries of infectious disease control have taught us, closing the loop between feces and food is a bad idea. E. coli is usually (but not always) an innocent bystander that happens to travel in some very rough company. Rather than flip out at the first sign of this ubiquitous coliform,[1] we should ask: is this a circumstance where no fecal contamination should be expected or tolerated? If so, then find the problem and fix it. If not, then beware of crying "wolf!" Or, in this case, "Pampers!"

[1] Would "The Ubiquitous Coliforms" be a good name for a rock band, I wonder?