What’s in Your Water? 5 Very Scary Organisms
Each year in the US, a number of infectious outbreaks are traced to drinking water contaminated with various bacteria, parasites and/or viruses. According to current data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the top risk of infection is associated with five very scary microorganisms:
- Giardia. Classified as a parasite, this microscopic organism features a tough outer shell (cyst) that helps it survive outside the host’s body and makes it resistant to chlorine and similar disinfection methods. It lives in the intestinal tracts of animals and humans so it can be spread in various ways, but drinking water and recreational water (lakes, ponds, swimming pools) are the two most common methods. Ingesting as few as 10 cysts can cause severe diarrhea, and it poses a greater threat to babies, young children, the ill or elderly.
- Campylobacter. These less-than-well-known bacteria are one of the leading causes of diarrhea, often accompanied by cramping, abdominal pain, fever and/or bloody stool. Various forms of the bacteria live in human and animal intestinal tracts as well as birds. While most people recover within a week to 10 days, campylobacter has been associated with the development of arthritis as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis and requires extensive medical care.
- Legionella. This is the same bacteria responsible for Legionnaires disease, a pneumonia-like lung infection. Because the symptoms are respiratory rather than gastrointestinal, people fail to suspect drinking water as the source. Unfortunately, it readily multiplies inside plumbing systems, so it spreads quickly and is difficult to eradicate even after it’s identified. In 2011, it contributed to 111 infections, 104 hospitalizations and 14 deaths.
- Norovirus. This highly contagious virus thrives in the human intestine and is transmitted through contaminated drinking water or food, direct contact with an infected individual or contact with a contaminated surface. It causes nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, and in the US, it’s the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis. There are many strains of norovirus and exposure to one doesn’t impart resistance to the others.
- Shigella. The name applies to a group of bacteria that live in the human intestinal tract. They cause cramping, fever and diarrhea, which in severe cases can be bloody. Infection imparts temporary immunity to the specific strain encountered but offers no protection against other strains. The bacteria can be transmitted through drinking water as well as contact with contaminated food, recreational water or the feces of an infected individual.
During a one-year period, more than 430 people were infected in 32 separate incidents traced to drinking water. Private water well systems are generally at greater risk, but public systems are vulnerable as well so it’s wise test your water in both circumstances. Water quality varies on a daily basis so for maximum protection, invest in an in-home disinfection system.