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  • Contaminated Drinking Water Responsible for Thirteen Deaths, Thousands of Illness Cases in US

    If your drinking water is clear it doesn't necessarily mean it is clean. Clear water may harbor invisible pathogens that can be harmful to your health. A new report that was recently published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that during 2013-2014, 42 health related outbreaks associated with drinking water contamination due to the presence of chemicals, pathogens or other toxins (excluding lead) were recorded in 19 US states.

    The outbreaks, which have increased from thirty-two reported during 2011-2012, caused more than a thousand people to fall ill, with 124 patients requiring hospitalization, and resulted in 13 deaths.

    According to the CDC, a large percentage (57%) of these outbreaks was caused by Legionella, which was also responsible for 88% of cases requiring hospitalization and all of the deaths reported. Legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can cause the deadly Legionnaire's disease, can also cause legionellosis, which although not as deadly, causes symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing, high fever, aching muscles and headaches in those affected.

    Scanning electron micrograph of Leptospira interrogans. Scanning electron micrograph of Leptospira interrogans.

    Legionella bacteria can enter the water supply via various channels, for example, through damaged pipes or as a result of flooding. And while water utilities typically treat drinking water with chlorine before it is distributed along the network, there may be cases where the dosage isn't high enough to ensure water reaching the end of the supply line is adequately treated. So if Legionella bacteria are present and are not sufficiently suppressed at the water treatment plant, their numbers can grow again by the time the water reaches the end of the water distribution network, causing people at the end of the supply line to fall ill.

    Cryptosporidium and Giardia parasites, which both cause an infected person to become ill with diarrhea, were responsible for five and three outbreaks respectively, according to the report, while harmful algal blooms or chemicals were responsible for five of the outbreaks.

    The CDC noted that 75% of the reported illnesses were associated with community water supplies that are regulated according to government safety standards.

    Environmental Exposure

    Over the same 2013-2014 period, the CDC received 15 reports of disease outbreaks as a result of environmental exposure to contaminated water from 10 US states, resulting in 226 people falling ill, 69 of which required hospitalization, resulting in 9 deaths. A further 12 outbreaks resulting from 'undetermined exposure to contaminated water' was recorded for eight US states, resulting in 63 people falling ill, 39 of which required hospitalization, and 8 deaths.

    For the disease outbreaks relating to both environmental and undetermined exposure, Legionella was again found to be the largest cause of illness (63%), hospitalizations (94%) and death (100%), while Giardia accounted for most of the illness cases associated with exposure to contaminated natural water bodies.

    Experts warn that even if your drinking water looks clean, it may harbor microscopic pathogens that can be harmful to your health. It is wise to have your water tested so that you know what is in it. But even if you do, there is always that chance that your water supply may become infected after it shows up as clear. To be on the safe side, it is better to filter your drinking water with a good quality drinking water filter that is capable of removing tiny bacteria and viruses, including Legionella and Giardia that may be lurking in your water supply.

    Journal Reference

    Katharine M. Benedict, et al. Surveillance for Waterborne Disease Outbreaks Associated with Drinking Water — United States, 2013–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (November 10, 2017) Vol. 66 / No. 44 (1216-1221). US Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    R. Paul McClung, et al. Waterborne Disease Outbreaks Associated With Environmental and Undetermined Exposures to Water — United States, 2013–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (November 10, 2017) Vol. 66 / No. 44 (1222-1225 ). US Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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