Bacteria in Drinking Water
Bacteria in our drinking water are one of the main sources of waterborne illnesses all over the world. These bacteria occur naturally in the air, water and soil, but most outbreaks of bacteriological contamination in drinking water are due to water coming into direct contact with human and animal waste.
The World Health Organization estimates that 50% of the population of Africa suffers from water-related diseases like infant diarrhea and typhoid due to inadequate access to clean drinking water or improper sanitation. But these problems are not confined to developing countries.
The modern, industrialized societies of the West, in spite of progressive water filtration methods, still suffer occasional outbreaks of water contamination from bacteria as heavy rainfall overwhelms sewage systems and runoff from livestock feedlots enters our surface waters.
Common Bacteriological Contaminants
These bacteria are the most common threats to our drinking water and have been a persistent problem for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
- E. coli 0157:H7 is one of many forms of coli form bacteria that live in the intestines of humans and other mammals. This strain is responsible for a range of flu-like symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, intestinal cramps, and occasionally, death as it overwhelms our immune systems.
- Shigellosis, from the Shigella dysenteriae bacterium, is responsible for dysentery, bloody diarrhea, fever, cramps, vomiting, and sometimes death, especially in children. A small percentage of the people that contract shigellosis suffer from Reiter�s syndrome which leads to chronic arthritis.
- Cholera, from the Vibrio cholerae bacterium, causes fever, severe headaches, diarrhea, and death from rapid dehydration. The last major outbreak in the U.S. was almost 100 years ago, but travelers to Africa, Asia, and South America are still at risk for exposure.
- Typhoid Fever, brought on by exposure to the Salmonella typhii bacterium, affects almost 22 million people worldwide each year. This critter lives only in humans and causes fever, headache, diarrhea, rashes, and sometimes intestinal hemorrhaging.
Methods of Disinfection
There are several methods of disinfection that you can employ to prevent these contaminants from making you and your family ill. These methods are the following:
- Water Boiling is very effective at killing these organisms and occasional �boil orders� are issued by local Health Departments when public water systems are compromised by broken pipes. However, this method is not practical for disinfecting large quantities of water.
- Chlorination is used by virtually every public water system in the West and is very effective at removing not only bacteria, but also other pathogens like protozoans and viruses. A few drops of chlorine in water that is allowed to stand for at least 30 minutes before drinking can eliminate almost all bacterial contamination.
- Ultraviolet Light kills all bacteria almost immediately and is a popular component of whole house water filtering systems. This process adds no taste or odor to the water, and ultraviolet filters are relatively small and easy to use.
- Iodine, in tablet form, is a good way to kill bacteria in drinking water when you are camping or during emergencies. These pills are readily available in drug and sporting goods stores, and one tablet will usually treat one quart of water.
Where to Get your Water Tested
If you get your water from one of the more than 160,000 public water systems in the U.S., you will probably never need to have your drinking water tested as these utilities test their water constantly and are required by law to submit regular reports.
If you get your drinking water from a private well, you are not required to test your water at all, but it is recommended that you have your water tested at least once every two years for contaminants. The tests are fairly inexpensive, and you can get a list of licensed testing facilities from your county�s water commission.
No matter where you live or where you get your drinking water, bacteriological contamination is a constant threat to your health. Most of us suffer occasional mild symptoms from bacteria in our food and water and attribute it to a case of the flu.
As more serious outbreaks occur and make headlines, more and more of us are becoming aware of these waterborne pathogens and seek our own solutions for water filtration for our homes. These filtering methods range from whole house systems with a variety of filtration media to faucet mounted filters, under sink filters, and water pitcher filters, to name a few.
Whichever method makes the most sense for your situation, from the simple to the comprehensive, taking charge of your own water filtration is an economical way to keep your drinking water safe.