The Nokia Virus: Finnish Town Faces Fecal Foul-up

A city in Finland best known as the namesake to mobile phone giant Nokia is floundering in filthy drinking water after a municipal employee sent thousands of gallons of sewage into the water supply. Thousands have fallen ill -- and the water is still dirty.

The 30,000 residents of the small Finnish city of Nokia have long lived according to what city leaders describe as a "principle" etched in stone. "We walk in Nokia boots, we use Nokia toilet paper and we talk using Nokia phones," the saying goes.

Indeed, for close to 150 years the city's fortunes have been inextricably connected to those of the eponymous corporation founded here that would grow to become one of the world's leading telecommunications companies, with almost four times as many workers worldwide as the city has residents.

Now, though, the brand is threatened by a scandal the company can do little about: the "Nokia Water Crisis."

The affair began six weeks ago when a municipal employee in Nokia unwittingly released thousands of gallons of sewage into the city's water supply last November, and over a month later authorities are still trying to clean up the water.

The contamination occurred when the employee turned a wrong valve at the city's sewage treatment plant, a mistake that sent 400,000 liters (105,600 gallons) of only partially filtered waste water spewing down a pipe that feeds the city's water supply.

The error wasn't detected until several days later, on Nov. 30, after scores of Nokia residents had already come down with stomach ailments and influenza. According to the Helsinki-based newspaperHelsingin Sanomat, thousands of people suffering from diarrhea drank more contaminated tap water before it was identified as the source of the outbreak. When the foul-up at the treatment plant was finally discovered, bacteria counts in the contaminated water "exceeded safe levels several-hundred-fold," according to NewsRoom Finland.

Jari Keinšnen, a senior health officer with Finland's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the leak in Nokia is the worst water contamination crisis in Finnish history. "Of course there are smaller cases every year, affecting perhaps 500 people. But I don't remember this kind of crisis in Finland before," said Keinšnen.

SPIEGEL reported in its Monday issue that as many as 5,000 Nokia residents may have fallen ill because of the water. The Ministry of Social Affairs, meanwhile, confirmed that 140 sought treatment at local hospitals. Three deaths are under investigation for possible connection to the leakage -- each victim died of a stomach disorder contracted after drinking the contaminated water.

Water mains in Nokia have ruptured several times since the contamination, stirring up contaminated sediment in the system. Tests also detected a common but nasty form of stomach flu, the norovirus, in the city's water supply last week.

In addition to private residents, the contamination has impacted a local spa and brewery, both of which have been closed until the water supply is deemed potable. After learning of the contaminated water, the brewery destroyed 100,000 bottles of beer that had been made using the sewage.

In response to the ongoing emergency, Finnish military reserves have been called in to distribute bottled water to the nearly 30,000 residents who draw their water from the contaminated mains. Keinšnen said that government agencies have begun cleaning Nokia's water mains with powerful doses of chlorine, a process that could take until spring.

Meanwhile, the city government is only certain of one thing: The scandal must not go down in the annals of history as the "Nokia Water Crisis" -- a development they fear could do serious damage to the telecommunications giant's international reputation.

pmm/spiegel

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