Although it is a much bigger problem in less developed countries, waterborne diseases are also a threat in the United States as well. Waterborne diseases are caused by contaminated water, which is any water source that contains pathogenic microorganisms. Among the many types of microorganisms that may cause waterborne diseases are:
- Intestinal parasites
When the contaminated water is consumed, the microorganisms are passed onto the individual drinking the water. In some cases, waterborne diseases simply cause unpleasant symptoms and can be easily treated. However, others have been found to be fatal, particularly when insufficient medical treatment is provided.
Types of Waterborne Diseases
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only about 22.5 outbreaks occur per year, with an average of about 4,640 to 9,331 people infected annually. Those cases occurred mostly as a result of water coming from non-community systems (as opposed to community or individual systems). Fortunately, the majority of waterborne disease cases are not fatal. The EPA reports that an average of 6 people per year die of a waterborne disease.
- Amebiasis: caused by protozoa. Symptoms include fatigue, diarrhea, flatulence, abdominal discomfort and weight loss.
- Campylobacteriosis: caused by bacteria. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.
- Cholera: caused by bacteria. Symptoms include muscle cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Cryptosporidiosis: caused by protozoa. Symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal discomfort.
- Giardiasis: caused by protozoa. Symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal discomfort.
- Hepatitis: caused by a virus. Symptoms include fever, chills, jaundice, dark urine and abdominal discomfort.
- Shigellosis: caused by bacteria. Symptoms include bloody stool, diarrhea and fever.
- Typhoid fever: caused by bacteria. Symptoms include fever, headache, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and an abdominal rash.
- Viral gastroenteritis: caused by a virus. Symptoms include gastrointestinal discomfort, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and headache.
Although these are all potential waterborne disease threats within the U.S., some are more common than others. For example, cholera and typhoid fever were the most common of the waterborne diseases in the U.S. during the late 19th and 20th centuries, but have dropped dramatically in the decades since.
Today, the most waterborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. have resulted from either giardiasis or cryptosporidiosis. These two waterborne diseases are marked by an ability to survive in cold water, a low dose required for infection and a resistance to some of the water treatment practices commonly used today. Fortunately, researchers are using information about the outbreaks of these diseases to further update and improve water treatment practices and standards all over the country.
The following are some of the best tips for avoiding a waterborne disease:
- Don’t assume that all bottled water is safer than tap water. Tap water must meet EPA standards while bottled water does not have to. In addition, bottled water does expire, so always check the label before drinking any. Furthermore, make sure your bottled water has been kept in a dry place out of direct sunlight at room temperature or cooler.
- Be especially careful about the water you drink if you have a weakened or suppressed immune system. An outbreak of a generally non-lethal waterborne disease became extremely serious in one community because it was contracted by dozens of people who had AIDS. Similar severe reactions to waterborne diseases can also occur in those who are elderly, have had an organ transplant or have a chronic disease which weakens their immune system.
- Watch for news about water sanitation in your newspaper, on the radio or on TV. Water companies are legally required to let you know if your water supply is contaminated. You can also read annual reports from the water supplier about the safety of their product.
- If you find out that your water supply is not sanitary, be sure to boil your water for at least one minute before using it. You can also used bottled water as a supplementary source of water until the water supplier meets sanitation guidelines.
- If you drink from a private drinking water well rather than a local public water system, be sure to have your water safety checked. Private wells are not regulated by the EPA standards that are set upon public water suppliers, so these are susceptible to waterborne diseases. The EPA recommends having your well water tested annually for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, pH and any contaminants that you suspect your water may have been exposed to.
- Do not expose your water supply to harsh chemicals or pesticides. These substances create the potential for waterborne disease and other illnesses.