Clean your water bottle: study finds bacteria in water storage containers

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Researchers studying higher rates of gastrointestinal illness in Inuit communities have a message for all Canadians: wash your water bottles and storage containers.

“People don’t really think about it,” said Sherilee Harper, co-author of the study recently published in the journal “Environmental Science and Pollution Research.”

“You know, it’s just water going into the container so you don’t think to clean it regularly. I have to tell you, after we did the study I certainly clean my water bottle more often than I did before.”

The University of Guelph research team took samples from drinking water stored in 104 containers at 76 homes in the tiny Inuit community of Rigolet in Labrador. It has a population of around 300.

The water had typically come from one of several treated dispensing units installed by the province in areas with high-risk water systems. Those units include reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light for purification.

But more than one-quarter of the home samples first taken in Rigolet in 2014 tested positive for bacteria suggesting fecal contamination, said lead researcher Carlee Wright.

Those rates of contamination jumped 13 times higher when smaller containers or “dippers” were used to scoop out water for drinking.

“Water that would have been initially clean when they collected it from the station can get recontaminated if the containers themselves are not clean,” Wright said.

“We tested stored water from almost all the households in Rigolet and found that about a quarter of them had indicator bacteria in them which indicates possible fecal contamination.”

Such contagions may help explain higher rates of reported cases of vomiting, diarrhea and other illnesses linked to longer term health effects such as bowel disease, Wright said.

“We did find rates of enteric illness or acute gastrointestinal illness to be over 2.4 cases per person per year,” she said of Rigolet.

That’s two to six times the rate for similar illnesses in other parts of Canada and countries such as the U.S., Chile, Argentina, Cuba, China, Poland and Italy, said Harper.

Rigolet resident Charlie Flowers said he and his family had always blamed such bouts on a stomach bug “or some food not agreeing with us.”

“It didn’t even occur to us that the water we were drinking could be the culprit.”

Flowers, 34, has lived in the Rigolet area all his life. He said his family uses tap water for cleaning but prefers water from the community dispensing unit for drinking and cooking.

“From time to time when we’re out on the land, or when the water dispensing unit is shut down for repairs, we will collect water from brooks, melted snow, homemade wells or even store-bought water,” he said in an email exchange.

“We prefer the taste of the water from the dispensing unit to that of the tap water, as it has a clearer colour and doesn’t have the chlorine taste that tap water does.”

Flowers first raised the question of whether storing water collected from the dispensing unit, installed in 2014, could pose health risks.

Wright said that query helped launch the study, which was very much a community effort. Public education is key, she stressed.

Posters went up in Rigolet once the results were in urging residents to wash containers and dippers in a bleach solution to be thoroughly rinsed out after. Stickers were offered for storage containers as a reminder to clean them once a month or more.

Wright said the results are relevant far beyond Inuit and other remote communities.

“If you have a water cooler in your house or a water pitcher in your fridge, I think these same sorts of principles and messages about cleaning containers, they still apply to everyone.”

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