Better control of contamination in plumbing systems could save lives

Harold Mandel's picture
A glass of sparkling drinking water

Contamination of drinking water is a very serious problem which can lead to serious illness and disease, and even to death. Although the problem of contaminated water is greatest in the developing world, there are also problems with this in the United States and other developed countries which can be life threatening. Initiatives to deal with this problem with natural solutions have been encouraging.

The journal Environmental Science and Technology offers a good review of a probiotic approach to pathogen control in plumbing systems. Strains of Legionella, Mycobacterium, Acanthamoeba, and Pseudomonas are among opportunistic pathogens which occur in plumbing systems. These pathogens are often agents of serious waterborne disease outbreaks.

Because opportunistic pathogens have become part of the drinking water microbial ecology, new paradigms are needed to control them. A probiotic concept for control of this problem has been under review. A good definition of a probiotic approach is the intentional inoculation of beneficial microbes. Another consideration with a probiotic approach is to select a desirable microbiome, which is a desirable microbial community.

Physicians for Social Responsibility has written that there are many different types of pollutants which can cause contamination of drinking water and lead to illness and disease. All water actually can potentially be contaminated by many impurities. Aside from pathogens, pesticides, heavy metals such as arsenic and lead, human and animal waste, and chemical by-products created during drinking water treatment, can contaminate drinking water.

Nausea, fever, diarrhea and dehydration can result from exposure to microbes in drinking water. Over the long-term this exposure can lead to a myriad of problems, including:

1: Rashes

2: Heart disease

3: Diabetes

4: Cancer

5: Immune, neurological, developmental, and reproductive problems

In the United States it has been estimated that about 900,000 people become very ill and as many as 900 die each year from waterborne infectious disease. Everyone is actually at some risk for health problems due to drinking contaminated water. Pregnant women, infants and children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to exposure from contaminated water.


Virginia Tech has offered a good discussion of the research which explores natural solutions to rid household plumbing of dangerous pathogens. Microbes are found everywhere. The microbes which are in the tap water which is delivered by modern water systems in a developed country are generally harmless, but there are some exceptions.

A team of researchers from Virginia Tech has been investigating the challenges which are presented by four pathogens that are often deadly that have been found in household or hospital tap water. These researchers have proposed fighting these opportunistic pathogens with a probiotic approach of harmless microbes.The researchers reviewed studies of opportunistic pathogens which have been found to colonize water systems in buildings. Their proposed probiotic approach to dealing with this problem deals with intentionally creating conditions which select for a desirable microbial community, or what is called a microbiome.

The opportunistic pathogens research included:

1: Legionella, the cause of deadly Legionnaires' disease and milder Pontiac fever

2: Mycobacterium avium complex, which causes pulmonary risks

3: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections.

4: Pathogenic free-living amoeba

Household plumbing systems offer ideal ecological niches for opportunistic pathogens due to the presence of lots of surfaces, overnight inactivity, and warmer temperatures. These pathogens readily form colonies, or biofilms. Biofilms which consist of opportunistic pathogens have been found to exist in cold and hot water and on shower heads, water taps, and even water filters. The researchers explored methods to control opportunistic pathogens with disinfectants, such as chlorine or chloramine.

Reporting on tips to prevent food poisoning, Emaxhealth reporter Teresa Tanoos points out that you should not drink water from streams or wells that are not treated or chlorinated. You should always wash your hands thoroughly to help fight the problem of water and food contamination, as pointed out by Emaxhealth reporter Denise Reynolds RD who has written that your hands are about as contaminated as a toilet bowl.

Barriers to using disinfectants to purify drinking water systems exist because some pathogens simply do not respond to the disinfectants. And the disinfectants can cause scaling and corrosion in pipes, which can lead to the release of metals into the water which provide a nutrient source for some pathogens. The researchers said plumbing is inherently loaded with a rich microbiome that is actually impossible to eradicate. They feel attempts to disinfect this environment could have ill effects on harmless, potentially helpful, microbes. It is their belief that these microbiomes can be harnessed to control opportunistic pathogens.

I have noticed the widening of awareness of the potential for water borne infections has lead to a great interest in which bottled waters and water filters are best for use. Getting sick from drinking dirty water can be a particularly threatening problem when traveling overseas. Emaxhealth reporter Denise Reynolds RD has reviewed how prebiotics may reduce traveler's diarrhea.

High quality bottled water and water filters are generally available at the supermarket. As research continues dealing with how to harness the power of helpful microbiomes to fight infections from drinking water, you should always be careful about the quality of water which you drink. Your life could depend on it. Remember, clean drinking water is essential for human life.



On one hand, chlorination has freed civilization form the constant dangers of waterborne epidemics. On the other hand, in the mid--70's scientists discovered that chlorination could create carcinogens in water." "80%of the population drinks chlorinated water." "There was a higher incidence of cancer of the esophagus, rectum, breast, and larynx and of Hodgkin's Disease among those drinking chlorinated surface waters." "Volatile organics can evaporate from water in a shower or bath." "Conservative calculations indicate that inhalation exposure can be as significant as exposure from drinking the water, that is, one can be exposed to just as much by inhalation and/or dermal absorption." IS YOUR WATER SAFE TO DRINK? Consumer Reports Books
Plumbing errors can be in the form of leaking pipelines, dripping taps, cracked drains or broken faucets or clogged drains. You have the dripping sound coming through out the day and then you have got that water logging in sinks and toilets. This often backlogs the waste from sewage into you home and spread a foul smell through out the place.