ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

Hikers Got Sick from Consuming Water at Hiking-Cabin in Germany

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The Bavarian TV station, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and a local newspaper among other sources report that over the weekend quite a lot of hikers got sick, they report on 145. Supposedly all of them have been to the cabin called “Rappenseehütte“. The TV station cites as reason a technical failure of the water treatment facilities. Currently, the cabin remains closed: The health administration wants to “thoroughly disinfect”.

The “Allgäu”, an area in the german Alps is a fairly common area for outdoor activities. There are quite a few cabins sustained by the German Alpine Club (Deutscher Alpenverein) and various sections of this club. Actually, I’ve been to one of the cabins, the “Mindelheimer Hütte” in the area only a few weeks ago.

Generally, the supply of drinking water in such cabins is not a simple task. It’s not that these cabins are small wood-fired shacks. They are rather comparable to hotels in the mountains and often include possibilities for hot showers. The Rappenseehütte has space for about 350 people. Even if they don’t all want to shower, they sure want to wash themselves, they want to drink and eat. Even if everybody is using water very savingly, one can guess that the cabin needs 4000L drinking water per day if it is running at capacity at the minimum. My guess is at least twice to four times that amount with cleaning, and I am not sure how much water such a big kitchen needs. In spring/summer probably the amount is not a problem. Plus this winter has brought a significant amount of snow. So, the “technical failure” remains a valid point.

Even though – how did the contamination get into the drinking water? Are there cows or other animals around? Do people walk over snow fields that melt into the drinking water supply of the cabin? It’s hard for me to imagine other sources of contamination other than human beings or animals. Generally, my thoughts have always been that if you are hiking in areas above the zone where cattle is being held, you’re safe to drink water. In those areas there might be occasionally a dead animal, but that doesn’t cause too much harm.

A few questions remain: If animals were the cause – how did bacteria that is harmful for human beings get into those animals? If animals should not be the cause – did the humans harm themselves? Do there need to be water-source-zones measures be in place? And finally, if one accepts that this was purely a technical failure and one wouldn’t care about source zone protection or other possible measures, then why was this failure not detected in time or an automatic backup system in place?

I guess the safest thing to do is to remain careful. I think pretty much at every tap at every cabin I have ever been it said “no drinking water”. I always thought, “oh well, it’s the same water that is supplied to the kitchen, so I’ll be ok”, so I used it anyways. Maybe this is not the thing to do. I guess one solution would be to just drink beer or other alcoholic beverages – at least those contain no bugs… I’m not quite sure if the well-being on the next day would be really supportive for mountainous adventures… 🙂

update Thursday; August 13, 2009: The German TV station n-TV reports that there were two causes for the problems at the Rappenseehütte: The UV module of the water treatment plant had failed and additionally visitors to the cabin infected each other with Norovirus. This seems to be a perfect example, that if something goes wrong there often tend to be multiple causes. It would be interesting to know though, why the UV failed, and how the Norovirus was transmitted (I suspect by droplet transmission).

Written by Claus

August 10th, 2009 at 8:04 am

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