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Microorganisms in Drinking Water: Solutions for Safe Water

Microorganisms in Drinking Water: Solutions for Safe Water

We often take our water quality for granted. Clean water is an essential component of our everyday lives. We use this water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, yet hidden dangers may lurk in our water, and until illness strikes, we are unaware of these dangers. Microorganisms are of particular concern; these biological contaminants can not only make us sick, but they can put our lives at risk. From a city drinking water system to privately-dug wells, biological microorganisms can contaminate the water we trust, requiring innovative solutions to rid these pathogens from our water. In this guide, we will explore the three types of microorganisms that can cause illness as well as present ways of protecting our health and our families with ultraviolet light system sterilization and water filtration systems. 

Biological Contaminants: Hidden Dangers in Water

When discussing unsafe water, many people believe that illness occurs only when drinking from untreated sources, such as rivers, lakes, and streams. Unfortunately, biological contaminants can also be found in municipal water sources as well as privately owned wells. Biological contaminants refer to three classes of living microorganisms:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Protozoan parasites

Microorganisms in water pose a significant public health risk, especially because they cannot be detected with the naked eye. These organisms can cause severe illness or even death. Water may become contaminated from agricultural and industrial runoff, animal activity, or natural disasters like flooding or earthquakes that affect water supplies. 

Bacterial Microorganisms

Thousands of different kinds of bacteria can be found in water. Most of these are not a health concern, yet certain one-celled organisms have the potential to cause serious or even fatal illnesses. Contamination can occur without notice and ingesting contaminated water can quickly lead to gastrointestinal distress. Some of the common bacterial organisms contaminating water supplies include:

  • Legionella
  • Clostridium
  • E. coli (fecal coliforms)
  • Salmonella
  • Schistosoma
  • Vibrio cholera
  • Campylobacter
  • If a person were to drink water contaminated with bacterial organisms, he or she may experience a wide range of symptoms like:

    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Cramping
    • Fever
    • Dehydration
    • Fatigue

    The onset of symptoms may take days and may require medical intervention. Most people can overcome a gastrointestinal infection with this medical assistance, but any delays in diagnosis or treatment can result in severe health complications and death. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk of developing complications from waterborne bacterial disease organisms. 

    Viral Contaminants in Drinking Water

    Of the millions of types of viruses in the world, a number of them have the potential to cause severe illness. A drinking water system contaminated with these viral organisms may go unnoticed until someone falls ill from consuming the water. When consumed, the viral particles in the contaminated water inject genetic material into healthy human cells. The infected cells then produce millions of copies of the virus and the infection spreads rapidly. Viruses are tiny, requiring advanced reverse osmosis water filtration or ultraviolet light system sterilization to make the drinking water safe. Common viruses found in drinking water include:

    • Rotavirus
    • Norovirus
    • Hepatitis A
    • Hepatitis E
    • Astrovirus
    • Enteroviruses, including the viruses that cause Coxsackie disease and polio

    water contaminants

    Water contaminated with viruses can cause a range of symptoms similar to those caused by bacterial contaminants. Unfortunately, viruses cannot be combated by antibiotics; without supportive medical care, people infected with waterborne viral infections may experience organ damage or even death. 

    Protozoan Parasites: Disease Organisms in Water Supplies

    Protozoan parasites, particularly the forms of certain microorganisms called cysts, are rare yet pose a significant health threat to humans. These protozoan organisms are more commonly found in untreated water sources. Agricultural runoff and animal activity can compromise the drinking water system you rely on for safe water, however, and preventative measures can help keep you and your family safe from these pathogens.

    Common protozoan parasites in drinking water include:

    • Cryptosporidium
    • Giardia
    • Toxoplasma
    • Balantidium
    • Sarcocystis
    • Isospora

    Perhaps the most common protozoan cyst in the United States is an organism called Giardia lamblia, commonly referred to simply as “Giardia”. Those infected with Giardia develop a diarrheal illness called giardiasis; the disease can result in weight loss, dehydration, and long-term health complications. 

    Treating Contaminated Water with Filtration

    Microorganisms are invisible to the unaided eye. These organisms cannot be detected without a microscope, making them a particular threat to human health. Their size also complicates the methods used to keep them from causing illness.

    In municipal water supplies, powerful disinfection chemicals are used to kill or neutralize dangerous microorganisms. While this can be effective, contamination after treatment can result in the spread of gastrointestinal illnesses. Some organisms – especially protozoan parasites -- are resistant to disinfection; a drinking water system that uses reverse osmosis filtration is one of the most common ways of removing these harmful organisms from water supplies. 

    Reverse osmosis replicates a natural cellular process by pumping water under pressure through a semipermeable membrane. The membrane is equipped with tiny pores, trapping contaminants but letting clean water pass through. Reverse osmosis is incredibly effective, removing 99% or more of harmful contaminants like bacteria, viruses, and protozoan cysts. A drinking water system equipped with reverse osmosis filtration can produce ample water for use around the home and requires minimal upkeep. 

    Ultraviolet Light System Sterilization

    Ultraviolet light has been proven by science to effectively neutralize or kill harmful organisms in contaminated drinking water supplies. Similar to the rays of the sun, a light wavelength known as the ultraviolet spectrum (UV) penetrates the cell walls of bacteria and the protein coat or shell of viruses and cysts, thereby interrupting the life cycle of these organisms. 

    An ultraviolet light system is comprised of a series of piping and valves and a sterilization chamber. Water from municipal sources or wells is pumped through the system. When the water reaches the sterilization chamber, a powerful UV emitter does the work of making the water safe to drink. The emitter is similar to a light bulb and is changed periodically to refresh the system. An ultraviolet light system that purifies water is economical to operate, requiring little electricity and only basic yearly maintenance to keep it at peak efficiency. 

    There is some concern that UV light sterilization is ineffective against protozoan cysts in the public health community. For systems that use low-power UV emitters, the light may not be strong enough to penetrate the hard protein shell of these organisms. Modern UV systems are much more effective in stopping these organisms from causing infection. A UV light system will be combined with a reverse osmosis water treatment system to ensure the cleanest, purest water for drinking and cooking in some homes. 

    With reverse osmosis filtration and with UV light system sterilization, you can ensure that your family is safe from harmful disease pathogens that may be in your drinking water system. Keep yourself and your family from developing waterborne illnesses with one or both of these effective water treatment systems in your home. 

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