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Water tainted in Tel Aviv

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TEL AVIV, Israel — About two million residents of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area awoke Tuesday to a warning not to drink tap water in what was billed as the worst contamination crisis in years.

The contamination apparently was caused by fertilizer that leaked into the national water pipeline near the town of Tira north of Tel Aviv, said Water Commissioner Shimon Tal.

Throughout the Tel Aviv region, panicked residents rushed to buy water immediately after the announcement Monday evening. Shahar Davidi, who owns a grocery in the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak, said he reopened late Monday and sold out all drinkable products, including soda, juice and milk, within 45 minutes.

Ilana Taibi said after buying mineral water at a shop in the suburb of Ramat Gan that she didn't wash the hair of her three small children during their showers since she was worried they would drink some of the water.

"The children don't understand that they can't turn the water on," Taibi said.

Taking showers or baths in the water is not recommended but not banned since it's not as dangerous as drinking it, said Zeev Fish, an environmental official with the Health Ministry.

Home owners who filled swimming pools Monday afternoon should not swim in them, Fish added.

Confusion arose when municipalities in the greater Tel Aviv area instructed the public that boiling the water was not enough to make it potable, contradicting an announcement by the Health Ministry that the measure was sufficient.

"Water panic" read the headline in the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper Tuesday. All major dailies ran front-page pictures of long lines of people buying large quantities of mineral water.

Health Minister Nissim Dahan said the warnings were necessary, "even if this would create a little panic."

The Mei Eden mineral water company in northern Israel called in all employees to work after hours and rented extra trucks to ensure the water could be hauled to the center of the country, said company official Yair Nehmad. Supermarket chains sent their own trucks northward to pick up water, Nehmad said.

Stores in the Tel Aviv area raised the prices of mineral water in an effort to make extra profit, consumer advocacy officials said.

Israel's national pipeline stretches in uncovered aqueducts to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area from the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, the source of about 40 percent of the country's drinking water. Authorities have continued to pump from the body of water despite dangerously low levels caused by a three-year drought.

Tal said he could not estimate how much water had been wasted in flushing the system clean.