A new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) outlines the link between drinking water and infection. The report focuses on drinking water in the United States between 2011 and 2012, detailing 32 outbreaks with 431 infections. Hospitalization was needed for 102 of those infections, and there were 14 deaths. Additionally, the CDC found that 21 of the outbreaks — 111 cases — were caused by legionella.
Only two outbreaks were linked to norovirus; however, those two outbreaks caused 138 infections. Other outbreaks over these two years were linked to Escherichia coli (56), Shigella sonnei and Pantoea agglomerans.
Perhaps what is more worrying than the outbreaks themselves is the fact that half of the outbreaks occurred in hospitals or other healthcare centers. Next, 13% of infections were in hotels. Less shocking was the fact that systems that used surface water for a source contributed to 56.3% of the outbreaks.
Viruses were the most common in individual cases, while legionella caused 26% of infections, and organisms accounted for about half. Cases involving organisms could easily be killed by chlorine, which points to a need to invest in disinfection techniques and monitoring, especially within systems providing drinking water.
Legionella can be more dangerous than other bacterial outbreaks, because it’s not easy to detect or treat. It usually multiplies within plumbing systems as well, so it can be one of the most difficult pathogens to get rid of in the water supply.
Illnesses linked to contaminated drinking water have jumped from just 15% in the 2009-2010 report to 52% in this recent report. The CDC is now saying that there needs to be “full implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Ground Water Rule and Revised Total Coliform Rule” in order to protect the population. Many members of Congress are trying to strike down those EPA standards, however, which could cause larger outbreaks in the future.
Yet the need for regulations is apparent, with recent clean water issues linked to fracking or the mine leak that has turned an entire river yellow in Colorado.
Cases in the Bronx, especially, point to a need for attention. An outbreak there of Legionnaire’s disease has been linked to contamination of water being run through cooling towers. This particular disease is responsible for a high death rate, because it most often affects people such as the elderly, who have poor immune systems. Because many of the outbreaks are occurring at healthcare facilities, this is especially worrying. Cases in the Bronx have now hit 119, with 12 deaths occurring. Contamination was again linked to cooling towers in the area.
While the future of these outbreaks is uncertain, one thing is becoming clear: regulations may be the only thing that can help. Cleaning and maintenance of cooling towers and other plumbing is necessary, not optional.
One last thought for the road: America is one of the most developed countries in the world, and we have these issues. Worldwide, these statistics are even worse, with 750 million people not even having access to clean water. More than 840,000 people are dying around the world from infections from contaminated water. Let this be a wake up call on the importance of clean water.