GILBERT, AZ — According to the Maricopa Department of Public Health, six children between the ages of 2 and 11, who live and go to school in Gilbert, developed E. coli between October 2018 and May 2019.
At least two of those children attend San Tan Charter School, according to legal documents.
On November 12, The McClellan Law Firm filed notice of claims against the town of Gilbert and San Tan Charter School, totaling a combined $116 million dollars. The law firm, representing a fourth and fifth-grade student and their families, says the boys are suffering from infections as a result of E. coli.
They claim the boys were both diagnosed in May. They say each is now suffering from a long list of illnesses and injuries. Documents state one has severe brain damage is on a feeding tube and can't walk. The other was hospitalized and is on dialysis.
The families claim clogged toilets, contaminated water, and loose animals on school campus contributed to a "filthy disease-causing environment."
The claims also include an inspection done of the school by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. It states while the temperature of some food items was not found to be in compliance and employees had to be reminded of proper handwashing requirements, no county legal action would take place.
In a letter sent to families at San Tan Charter School, the school's superintendent Dr. Kristofer Sippel stated in part, "For those of you who were with us last year you may remember that we invited the Health Department out to do a site visit in May in response to an internal concern for E-coli at the Recker campus. The thorough site visit which included soil and water samples came up negative for e-Coli on the Recker campus."
A spokesperson for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health says it can be difficult to track down the source of the infection. She says families often speak with investigators and fill out questionnaires to figure out where they've eaten, when they've eaten and the commonalities between the cases, but it's not always crystal clear. For example, if you go back to a restaurant, it's possible a particular food item will no longer be there.
MCDPH says it could take about 3 more months before more details into the investigation are released. The department says the investigation is currently open and unless another case is identified soon, they'll likely close it in January. They say it could take about 30-60 days to write up a complex investigation report.
A spokeswoman for the town of Gilbert also said the town's water is in full compliance with all regulatory requirements. They sent ABC15 the following statement:
"We are sad to learn about the details mentioned in the claim. Gilbert has fully cooperated with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s investigation as they tried to locate the source. Gilbert’s drinking and reclaimed water systems were, and continue to be, in full compliance with all regulatory requirements."
A spokeswoman for MCDPH says to date, they have not identified a cause for the six cases of E. coli. "We looked at every possible link between two or more cases, and worked with partners to evaluate possible concerns and perform environmental testing to look for E. coli O157. No source was found," said Public Information Officer for Maricopa County Public Health Sonia Singh in an email to ABC15.
She added: "Our multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional investigation included partnering with Maricopa County Environmental Services Department, the Town of Gilbert, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and TGen. Together, we performed an extensive epidemiologic and environmental investigation that included animal, water and soil testing on multiple days, with all results negative for E. coli O157. The only thing that all six cases have in common is that they live or go to school in Gilbert. Ages range from 2 to 11 years old. No case has been identified since May 2019, even though MCDPH has been actively looking for them. We think this is likely over. Out of an abundance of caution and because the cases occurred months apart, we are leaving the investigation open. If another case is identified, we will initiate an investigation surrounding that case."
Gilbert Public Works Director Jessica Marlow says the Maricopa County Department of Public Health contacted them about the investigation.
"They just asked us for our records as part of that process, or asked us if we had any positive tests during that time period, and we hadn't," Marlow said.
She says while investigators didn't directly test the drinking water themselves, they did test the reclaimed water found in lakes throughout town.
"From there water's pulled out of the lakes and used to irrigate grass and golf courses and open spaces in our parks that all use reclaimed water for irrigation," Marlow said.
She ensures the water they consistently test is safe.
"Our teams take a lot of pride in doing a good job and keeping everything safe for the town," Marlow said.
To view the town's water quality reports, click here.