This Month in Personal History – The ‘Sewickley Malaise’

Sewickley Water Storage

Sewickley Water Authority storage tank and reservoir – present day.                                                                                                                                                                 Bing Maps

Forty years ago, the attention of the local, state, and national public health community turned toward Sewickley Borough and its municipal water supply.

If you lived, worked, played, or were otherwise hanging out in the general vicinity of Sewickley, PA in late August 1975, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, got really sick.

A joint statement by health officials published in the days following the outbreak gave estimates of 60% of residents becoming ill:

 “The prominent symptoms of this illness were prolonged abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting”.

That 60% translates to about 4,000 people at the time, and that was just residents. The statement acknowledged that the number likely didn’t include anyone who ingested Sewickley water, but didn’t live in the service area of the Sewickley Water Authority. An example cited was “a 23-man U.S. Coast Guard crew, 20 of whom drank Sewickley water and became ill“.

Those numbers also included myself. My family lived in Edgeworth at the time, but not in the part served by Sewickley Water. I spent enough time in “the village” and other places to be one day suddenly taken over by symptoms matching those described above – with a vengeance.

I am fortunate to say that aside from chicken pox at age 8, I cannot recall being that sick before or since. Over the course of the three-day average length of the illness, I lost 11 pounds.

Word Spread Like The Virus

This happened in the 1970’s, which in the eyes of a teenager was a time of dynamic change on many fronts. If you followed Mad Men on TV, you get the idea. The social media of the day was the local newspaper, with CB Radio running a popular but fairly distant second. I was a big fan of both.

The Herald of those days was the best source, if not the sole source, of information about newsworthy, commercial, and social goings-on in Sewickley and its neighboring communities. Editor Betty G.Y. Shields and her staff were involved in the community outside the paper as much as within its pages. “B.G.” Shields was a big part of the local effort to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial less than a year away, and lots of column inches were dedicated to publicizing that effort.

Also included in Herald reporting of the day was coverage of rampant vandalism, loitering juveniles, rumors of trouble at Bethlehem Steel in Leetsdale, and a crumbling, fragile Sewickley Bridge.

Thanks to the magnificent resource that is the Sewickley Herald Digital Archive, I was able to trace a timeline of reported events. This started and ended much like the virus that entered the Sewickley water supply – starting small, but quickly becoming prolific, intense, and short-lived.

The first mention of any trouble appeared in the August 27 edition, approximately two days after the Allegheny County Health Department was alerted by a local physician to 15 patients exhibiting similar symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.  The few paragraphs included that information, but were intended primarily to alert water customers of changes in color and taste due to increased chlorination at the requests of regulators. Then-Sewickley Water Superintendent Ernest Tucci’s skepticism of water as the cause was also reported.

As cases began to multiply exponentially, so did the media attention. As state resources (DER, now the DEP) and the federal Centers for Disease Control became involved in trying to pinpoint the cause, Pittsburgh media started to pay attention, and the Herald’s reporting and opinion became much more comprehensive and focused on what was at the time a mystery ailment without a definitive cause.

The September 3 edition reported at length on the investigation, including a description of the Command Post at the Sewickley Borough Building, manned by as many as 20 workers.

On the editorial page of the same issue, the focus seemed to be one of trying to calm what appeared to be a community ready to blame the water supply, and its overseers, before the investigation was even approaching the completion of information gathering. The term “Sewickley Malaise” appeared prominently on this page.

The tone of the editorial almost seemed to admonish a citizenry just getting over the trust issues brought about by Watergate (now that’s ironic) not to jump to conclusions:

It may be that the mystery is never solved. What then? Let’s not begin talking of coverup. It is a fact that the Sewickley Water Works has cooperated fully with all the authorities, granted interviews to all reporters and, we think, want more than any others to know the answers.

The Cause, and the Effects

By the following week, those conclusions had been reached, and water was determined to be the illness’ method of transmission. The statement issued by health officials called the three open reservoirs along Water Works Road “a weak link in the water system and the probable point of contamination“.

The Herald editorial for that week grabbed hold of the recommendation to cover those reservoirs, and implored the then-Sewickley Water Commission to move “with dispatch” to plan for the eventual covering of those reservoirs – an expensive proposition.

It was also discovered that a hole in the collector for the well that drew water from an aquifer underneath the Ohio River had allowed river water into the system pre-treatment. Repairs were effected, and health officials dismissed this as a potential source of the illness.

Fallout and continued scrutiny continued in the weeks afterward. The September 24 Herald included coverage of the Sewickley Council meeting, where a councilman was quoted as stating that “providing safe water was not council’s responsibility”  – a technically correct but nonetheless unfortunate assertion that earned him criticism in an October 1 Herald editorial. This editorial also leveled criticism at the Sewickley Water Commission for failing to communicate in any meaningful way with its users and fellow citizens about the outbreak, or their plans to better protect the community’s water supply.

That communication finally occurred in mid-October, with the Herald reporting on October 22 that a public meeting held by the Water Commission detailed the costs of repairs already made, and that the costs of future repairs and upgrades related to the recommendations of health officials would likely necessitate an increase in water rates.

It was also reported that the audience at that meeting amounted to a total of nine persons. Life went on, I guess…

The System Today

A comprehensive report and analysis of this major waterborne disease event was published in the November 1976 issue of the Journal of the American Water Works Association. While copyrighted, the article can be obtained through Sewickley Public Library’s reference desk, which is how I got to read it.

According to Mark Brooks, Sewickley Water’s Operations Supervisor, the system has changed significantly, and “there is a lot more coordination now“. Of the three reservoirs in use in 1975, only one remains – Number 4, which is fully covered. Adjacent to this reservoir is a 2 million gallon storage tank. A second collection well was also drilled into the aquifer that runs beneath the bed of the Ohio.

Mr. Brooks also stated that the amount of water stored at the reservoir site is less than it was forty years ago. The former reservoir Number 1 is presently being demolished to make way for a new, straightened section of Water Works Road, slated to open in December.

The amount of attention paid to critical infrastructure such as this has increased dramatically since 9/11/2001. Regardless of the size of the system, consistency in both operating practices and security procedures, as well as environmental regulation and enforcement, has become much more prevalent in most local utility systems.

As a result, the likelihood of another ‘malaise’ may be reduced, but the CDC reminds us in this 2012 article that vigilance is still, and will always be, of paramount importance to our nation’s health and quality of life. One need look no further than the impact on our region’s water systems by drilling activity to see the need for this to continue.

Have a great month ahead.

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One Response to This Month in Personal History – The ‘Sewickley Malaise’

  1. Good article John!! I was just talking about this illness with an out of town guest of mine as she was going to buy some Swedish Fish and asked if I wanted any to which I said no. I expanded on my answer by telling her about the incident with the reservoir that caused so many people to be sick. Like you, I also got viciously ill and at the time I thought it was the Swedish Fish since I had apparently consumed a considerable amount of them at the time of the incident. I had no idea we had 3 reservoirs back in ’75. This was very informative. Thx

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