A Gastrointestinal Disease Hits Georgetown, Texas, 1980s

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By Saul Zuniga

In the Summer of 1980, the city of Georgetown was thrown into a crisis when an outbreak of a mysterious gastrointestinal disease took the city by storm, infecting thousands within a week or two and businesses closed under the pressure.[1] Subsequent research culminated in a scientific article published 2 years later and confirmed local suspicions of a waterborne disease being the culprit however the primary viral agent was (and still) not identified.[2]  Four years later, an outbreak of Cryptosporidium occurred in Braun Station, a small town near San Antonio and it’s waterborne qualities were identified for the first time.[3] Both towns received water from the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and both incidents contributed to changes in wastewater regulations for said aquifer.[4] These two events are tied to the history of waterborne gastrointestinal epidemics and can be used to analyze how Georgetown responded to sudden outbreaks.

The larger changes of environmental policies in the 1970s and 80s explain the different approaches in both cases of gastrointestinal disease These years saw an increase in environmental protection policies and the years that followed were defined by the public's response to them. In his monograph Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, Richard Andrews, a professor of environmental policies, writes about the long history of environmental policies in the United States. Andrews argues that the federal environmental policies of the 1970s could be summarized by the assertion of national standards and the cooperation between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states to implement them.[5] However, during the early 1980s, this federal initiative to control the environment would come under attack as President Ronald Reagan took office and dismantled many of them.[6] These developments contextualize the state of environmental policies leading up to and during the Georgetown epidemics of gastrointestinal disease. From all of this, these outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases become much more understandable at the state and municipal levels. First, it brings up the question of how the changes in federal support may have influenced the research done by the City of Georgetown (1980) and of that done by the local government at Braun Station (1984-85). Secondly, the developments leading up to 1980 construct a setting in which there is a clear divide in power between the federal government and the local municipal entities.

These contextual insights become visible when looking at the primary sources of the different outbreaks. When comparing the primary scientific articles published for both epidemics, one immediately sees a difference in the extent of federal aid. The article that compiles the research done for the 1980 Georgetown outbreak was published under the journal American Water Works Association and supported by grants given by the EPA and the National Institutes of Health while also being assisted by the Williamson County Health Department.[7] Whereas the article regarding the outbreak in Braun Station was published in Annals of Internal Medicine and gives acknowledgments to the Texas Department of Health, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and was in cooperation with local medical centers.[8] Furthermore, the reaction by those who wrote for the Williamson County Sun during the summer of 1980 depicted the local community and officials being fed up by the amount of involvement by state and federal entities. One writer talks about how the event has put their small city under an unwanted national spotlight and that they now have to, unfortunately, deal with the National Center for Disease Control and the EPA.[9] Another talks about the tensions between local city manager Leo Wood and Texas state officials over the legitimacy of the state officials’ claim that the sickness is likely being transmitted through the city water supply.[10] These primary sources show that the 1980 case study of gastrointestinal disease in Georgetown occured right before funding was cut to federal environmental funding. They also point out a shift in power dynamics. The first paper was funded by federal agencies who gave money to local institutions to conduct the work (similar to Andrews’ claims) while the second paper was entirely conducted and funded by local and state agencies. This long-term shift from a multi directional to an entirely localized approach to environmental policies show the years between 1980-1984 as being defined by the political tensions that come with this shift.

Additionally, the epistemological processes tied to the history of science can also be seen in this response to an epidemic. The interactions between Georgetown citizens and the local as well as federal ‘officials’ mirrors much of what historians of science have discussed in regards to public knowledge. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent argues that public science was a form of “promot[ing] public opinion as a political force… “ as it raised tensions between scientists and the public.[11] This is a process seen in my case study as political tensions played a huge part in the 1980 gastrointestinal outbreak. When the outbreak first occurred, the Georgetown government officials were quick to state that it was not caused by water, saying that the few tests for (known) waterborne gastrointestinal diseases were inconclusive; however, many of the city residents did not agree and continued to argue that the disease had to be waterborne.[12] In fact, the local and state officials involvement in the crisis was described (quoted from a State  epidemiologist) as “experts” running “difficult” tests[13]  and while they failed to find any answers, the publics’ response (or rather, “rumors”) point towards a possible sewage leak being responsible for the epidemic.[14] This description of experts running complex tests was a reaffirmation to the public that even though scientists have not found evidence regarding the source or cause of the epidemic, they are trying. At the same time—in fact, before—the “rumors” of a sewage leakage causing the disease was a way for the public to affirm their own political influence.

These tension between the public and the Georgetown officials as well as the tensions between municipal and federal officials reaffirms the historical ‘deficit model’ characterized by the assumption of a “considerable epistemological inferiority between experts and receivers of scientific discourse.”[15] The very first mention of the 1980 outbreak in The Williamson County Sun was a small story that gave the initial responses by Georgetown officials and experts.[16] It discussed how a few people (mostly old and young individuals) have been hospitalized by an unknown illness. A local doctor was quoted as saying “it is just plain old intestinal flu” and affirms that “the water supply has been checked and found to be perfectly safe. This is strictly a viral infection.”[17] Three days later, the front page of the weekly newspaper was strictly about the epidemic. The same local doctor and the city manager refuted the popular theory amongst people about the illness (that it was a result of pesticide use) and apparently repeated statements such as “we’ve never seen anything like this before.”[18] The writer cited two “passerby” who firmly believed the illness to be sourced from the water supply. The writer continued and cited the director of the Williamson County Health Department who said “you can’t just hand a bottle of water over to a laboratory and ask them to tell you what’s in it… you’ve got to know what you’re looking for.”[19] The tests that were conducted were for the presence of E. Coli and when they returned negative, the city manager reported “that ought to relieve some minds as far as the water is concerned” and the local doctor said “I believe we can now start looking elsewhere.”[20] But the city residents did not agree. The local officials’ claim disregarding a waterborne illness would continue until the state and federal agencies got involved.[21] These initial responses portray the tension between everyday people and local/federal governments regarding disease and how to deal with it. As historian Nieto-Galan noted that experts often downplay certain risks seen as dangerous by lay people, “while the latter question the authority and legitimacy of the experts.”[22]The Georgetown local officials disagreed with the public while the former disagreed with federal officials.

The 1980 Georgetown outbreak of gastrointestinal disease occurred before federal funding to the EPA was cut so one would assume that the event was entirely under control. However, that was not the case. Instead, the outbreak was a convoluted case that had disagreements and tensions between people from multiple levels of power. To search for a top-down approach or bottom-up approach within this case study would take much more time and even then, such a dichotomy can not be entirely defined when looking into the societal influences that go into the history of science. Before the outbreak, the influence of the local and municipal government simply relied on the use of manually adjusted chlorine injections to clean their water, it was not till after the event that the systems saw an upgrade.[23] During the outbreak, the rhetoric made by Georgetown officials displayed a scenario where the experts held the truth and were in control of the situation when in fact, they weren’t. It could be argued that the virus that caused the 1980 outbreak was Cryptosporidium and because it’s waterborne qualities were not known at the time, it made sense that there was no testing for it. However, even that argument does not take away the power dynamics at play when the city officials/experts refuted the idea of a water supply problem simply on the basis that E. Coli was not found.

 The 1980 gastrointestinal outbreak in Georgetown Texas is a clear example of how disease is much more than a biological threat. It exists within a society and is thus influenced by a number of complex sociocultural phenomena. This case study gives students and historians of science the chance to understand how political and social power dynamics influence a historical response to epidemics on the grounds of policies and epistemology. These complex relationships between disease and societal factors are important to understand, now more than ever. As we survive through the COVID-19 pandemic and transition into a new post COVID-19 world, these are the historical actors we must pay attention to.

[1] Ray Jones, “Mysterious illness strikes thousands in city,” Williamson County Sun Vol. 104 No. 5, June 19, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[2] Hejkal, T.W, B Keswick, R.L LaBelle, C.P Gerba, Y Sanchez, G Dreesman, B Hafkin, and J.L Melnick. “Viruses in a Community Water Supply Associated with an Outbreak of Gastroenteritis and Infectious Hepatitis.” Journal (American Water Works Association) 74, no. 6 (1982): 318-21.

[3] D'Antonio RG, Winn RE, Taylor JP, Gustafson TL, Current WL, Rhodes MM, Gary GW Jr, and Zajac RA. “A Waterborne Outbreak of Cryptosporidiosis in Normal Hosts.” Annals of Internal Medicine 103, no. 6 (1985): 886–88.

[4] Geological Society of America. Meeting (125th : 2013 : Denver, Colo.). Caves and Karst Across Time. Edited by Joshua Feinberg, Yongli Gao, and E. C Alexander. Special Papers / Geological Society of America, 516. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America, 2016. 56.

[5] Andrews, Richard N. L., Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy 2 nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 249.

[6] Richard Andrews, Managing the Environment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 255-56.

[7] Hejkal, T.W, B Keswick, R.L LaBelle, C.P Gerba, Y Sanchez, G Dreesman, B Hafkin, and J.L Melnick. “Viruses in a Community Water Supply Associated with an Outbreak of Gastroenteritis and Infectious Hepatitis.” Journal (American Water Works Association) 74, no. 6 (1982): 318–21.

[8] D’Antonio, “Normal Hosts,” 886-888.

[9] “Nationwide Attention,” Williamson County Sun: The Sunday Sun Vol. 6 No. 52, June 22, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[10]  Emily Baker, “ ‘Leo says: prove it’ - State Takes Away Water Approval,” Williamson County Sun: The Sunday Sun Vol. 7 No. 1, June 22, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[11] Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette. “A Genealogy of the Increasing Gap between Science and the Public.” Public Understanding of Science 10, no. 1 (2001): 102.

[12] Ray Jones, “Mysterious illness strikes thousands in city,” Williamson County Sun Vol. 104 No. 5, June 19, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[13] Ray Jones, “Mysterious illness…” 13. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020

[14] Emily Baker, “Amount of Chlorine Boosted in City Water,” Williamson County Sun Vol. 104 No. 6, June 26, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[15] Nieto-Galan Agustí. Science in the Public Sphere : A History of Lay Knowledge and Expertise. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

[16] “Virus sweeps Georgetown” Williamson County Sun: The Sunday Sun Vol. 6 No. 51, June 15, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ray Jones, “Mysterious illness strikes thousands in city,” Williamson County Sun Vol. 104 No. 5, June 19, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Emily Baker, “ ‘Leo says: prove it’ - State Takes Away Water Approval,” Williamson County Sun: The Sunday Sun Vol. 7 No. 1, June 22, 1980. Accessed through Southwestern University on March 1, 2020.

[22] Nieto-Galan Agustí. Science in the Public Sphere : A History of Lay Knowledge and Expertise. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2016. 210.

[23] Hejkal, T.W, B Keswick, R.L LaBelle, C.P Gerba, Y Sanchez, G Dreesman, B Hafkin, and J.L Melnick. “Viruses in a Community Water Supply Associated with an Outbreak of Gastroenteritis and Infectious Hepatitis.” Journal (American Water Works Association) 74, no. 6 (1982): 318-21.