Dozens fall ill at Tangalooma resort after bacterial contamination hits water supply
Holiday makers struck down with vomiting and diarrhoea after visiting Tangalooma off the coast of Brisbane are angry with how the popular island resort handled the drinking water contamination.
Health authorities are investigating the source of the contamination after more than 50 people fell ill with gastroenteritis on Moreton Island in a matter of days.
A spokeswoman for Tangalooma Island Resort said initial tests on the water by authorities returned positive samples of E.coli (Escherichia) bacteria.
“Some of our guests and staff have reported illness consistent with nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and a general feeling of being unwell,” she said.
Dr Kari Jarvinen from the Metro South Public Health Unit said further testing was being undertaken.
“All guests and staff have been advised to boil their drinking water or use commercially supplied bottled water until the issue is resolved,” Dr Jarvinen said.
“Anyone on the resort or anyone who has recently visited the resort should be alert for symptoms of gastroenteritis and seek medical advice if they have concerns.”
‘Don’t drink the water’
Peter Morris and his partner Samantha had vomiting and diarrhoea after spending a week at the resort.
He said she became quite ill on Saturday night after they had checked out and returned to the Gold Coast.
“I tried very hard to get an after-hours doctor here at Broadbeach and ended up getting an ambulance and she was taken to Robina Hospital,” Mr Morris said.
“She was definitely worse than me and she’s got a medical condition that means that if she can’t take her medicine orally it becomes life-threatening. So she had to have injections.”
Mr Morris said he had heard nothing from the resort despite management saying it had contacted 3,000 guests following the outbreak.
“They have made no attempt to contact me or my friends and they have our email and mobile details,” he said.
“They’re very bad at communication.”
David James, the director of the resort, said staff were contacting 3,000 people who had visited or stayed at the resort over the past few weeks.
“We’re still in that process but [we’ve been] doing that for the last day or so,” he said.
Kate McCorkindale was staying at accommodation near, but not owned, by the resort on the weekend for a friend’s 30th birthday.
She said her group did not find out about the contamination until 24 hours after resort guests were told.
“We found out from other resort guests who came to visit us in our house. We were drinking the water and they said, ‘Oh stop, don’t drink the water’,” she said.
“We were really disappointed with the response.”
Ms McCorkindale said the owner of the house where she was staying was also in the dark.
“Perhaps it wasn’t the resort’s responsibility, but no-one let us know,” she said.
The water supply for the resort and properties surrounding it is run by the resort.
Seven people in her group of 16 had mild cramping and diarrhoea.
A one-year-old was among those who got sick.
It was Courtney Jefferies’s birthday that brought the group to the island.
She said she would write a formal complaint to the resort over the handling of the incident.
“Whilst we were staying in private accommodation we were still staying at their resort, utilising their facilities and drinking their water, and in my view they have a duty of care to all persons,” she said.
“It’s really quite disgusting, the lack of communication.”
Kristy Lambert, who is 15 weeks’ pregnant, was also among the group of 16.
“We had babies staying with us that obviously had formula bottles being made up and being pregnant, water was the only thing I could drink,” she said.
“So I was going to town on the water all day Friday, all day Saturday and it was Saturday afternoon that we then got told from another guest that was staying at the resort, ‘hey, don’t drink the water’.
“It’s a bit daunting to think that something as simple as water could have passed on those germs.”
E.coli bacteria found
Resort director Mr James said when people first started getting sick mid-last week it appeared to be a norovirus outbreak, but on Saturday testing confirmed an E.coli contamination.
“As soon as we found that out we obviously stopped all water supply into the resort itself and we’re supplying all of our guests with water … whilst we work through this issue,” he said.
Mr James said that meant “testing, testing, and more testing” to determine how the contamination happened.
“It’s never happened before and that’s what’s got us a bit stumped here,” he said.
He said the main water reservoir was treated on Saturday and the resort was waiting to see if it would be given the all clear.
“All we’re worried about is making sure everyone has a great holiday,” he said.
About 15 to 20 resort staff were among those to be affected.
A spokeswoman said all the water is sourced from the underground water table and filtered through the resort’s water-treatment plant.
“The quality and safety of our water-treatment facility and water supply is regularly audited by independent experts to meet all regulatory and safety requirements,” she said.
“To date there have been no previous issues of such a contamination in the resort’s long history.”
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the resort has a duty of care to its guests.
“I’ve asked my director-general to immediately send a public health expert over to the island to conduct an examination of that,” she said.
Tangalooma Resort guests told to scrap previous advice as possible groundwater contamination investigated
6 November 2019
Health authorities investigating the contamination of drinking water at Tangalooma Island resort are looking into the possibility that sewage or other contaminants have polluted the island’s natural ground water.
Staff and guests are now being told to only use bottled water and scrap previous advice about boiling water.
At least 60 people, including six children, are believed to have fallen ill, from one tour group.
Dr Kari Javenin from Queensland’s Public Health Unit said the bacterial infection may not be avoided by just boiling.
“It is now only commercially bottled water that may be consumed,” Dr Javenin said.
“Previously we said that it is OK to consume bottled water. That has been upgraded due to further information and toxins present in the water that is not comprehensively or completely destroyed by boiling.
“So from now on the advice will be, and this has already been communicated to Tangalooma resort management, consume only commercially bottled water until further notice. And that includes for brushing teeth, also preparing food, washing vegetables.”
He said authorities have not ruled out the potential that the ground water naturally filtered by sand on the island may have been polluted.
“We are looking at each and every potential. That is certainly being looked at among many other things,” Dr Javenin said
“The investigations are still underway and we are getting more expert consultation and further specialised testing will be needed to be carried out to really answer that, but I can assure you that every angle is under consideration.”
A page on the resort’s website said it sourced drinking water from a natural underground water table, which starts about 1.5 metres below the surface of the sand, extending 40 metres below to bedrock.
“As the sand grains on the island are only tiny in size, it is an extremely efficient way of filtering the rainwater and we tap into this and supply the resort with the most pure and natural potable water possible,” the website said.
“The resort only uses a fraction of the water (less than 1 per cent).”
That page has since been deleted.
The state’s chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, issued a ‘Public Health Matter of State Significance’ notice on Wednesday, giving investigators greater power.
Health Minister Steven Miles said finding a quick solution to the problem required a joint effort.
“Ultimately this is a responsibility of Tangalooma and Brisbane City Council,” Mr Miles said.
“However, because Tangalooma is really one of the jewels in the tourism crown of our state, this step recognises how important it is that guests from all over the world know that they can visit Tangalooma and do so safely.”
Authorities have ordered the resort to install filters on its taps and immediately increase the treatment to the resort’s pool.
Resort management declined to answer specific questions about the handling of sewage on the island but a spokesman said it was fully cooperating with the investigation.
“The health, comfort and safety of our guests, staff and residents of the island is our priority and we have provided a free alternate bottled water supply, which is available at many points across the resort,” he said.
“We are cooperating fully and following the advice of Queensland Health and Brisbane City Council (BCC) with reservations for current and future guests remaining in place.
“We are awaiting the results of water quality testing being undertaken by Queensland Health, so that we can work with them and BCC to determine the appropriate actions.”