Water Woes: Is Your Water Bottle Making You Sick?

Tania MacWilliam
Health & Wellness

Nov. 3, 2011

*PDF of original article here

We’re approaching a new flu season and are washing our hands to prevent illness, but are you washing out your water bottle?

The average adult’s body weight is up to 60 per cent water and experts recommend that we drink eight glasses of the refreshing liquid each day.

To make sure they are meeting their daily requirements, many people take water bottles to work, school and to the gym, and more people are opting for reusable types to save a few bucks and to help the environment.

We are fortunate to have potable water to refill our bottles — but not washing them out regularly could make you sick.

“Bacteria can grow in distilled water,” said Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor with the department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. “Most people don’t know that. No matter how crisp or clear the water, bacteria can grow in it.”

Bacteria can use carbon from the air, and the plasticizers that make plastic flexible, to survive, Gerba said.

Introduce more diverse nutrients and bacteria are in for a feast.

When you take a drink, reflux can occur. This is also known as “back-washing.”

“That’s a source of nutrient material from your mouth back into the reservoir bottle,” said Richard Holley, professor and head of the department of Food Science at the University of Manitoba. “That can stick to the walls and serve as a starting material for low numbers of bacteria.”

Even small numbers of harmful bacterium can cause gastrointestinal upset, and while it is possible to get very ill by drinking from a dirty water bottle, you may only get a little diarrhea, Holley said.

Hygenic handling
While harmful bacteria can be transferred from our mouths, the culprits can also come from our hands.

“To some extent you can say, ‘Well OK, if only I use my water bottle then at least it’s only my bacteria,’ except of course if your hands have been touching other people,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist and infectious disease consultant at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

You wash your hands on a regular basis, but you should also be washing your bottle, McGeer said.

“If you don’t wash it [bottle], but you wash your hands, then you kind of wasted washing your hands,” she said.

Connor Dotson, a 14-year-old soccer player with the Milton Dragons, drinks from a reusable water container because he believes single-use plastic bottles are bad for the environment. There is also a more practical reason for his choice.

“Once I go onto the field I normally just leave it [bottle] on the bench,” he said. But if he was using a regular water bottle, “It could easily get mixed up with somebody else’s.”

Reusable bottles are easier to identify than the generic single-use ones. Connor’s bottle makes it less likely his teammates will grab it and take a swig.

“The worst water bottles are the sports bottles.”

Water-bottle bacteria may do little more than have you running to the rest-room frequently, but it can also spread the flu, said McGeer.

Yet, she warned, there’s a potentially more dangerous bacteria that could easily be transmitted via water bottles. You can contract MRSA.

Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, a superbug, is an antibiotic-resistant bacteria most known for being picked up in hospitals, but is can also be acquired in the community.

Choosing the right bottle
As people become more germ-conscious they are gravitating toward products promising a fresher drinking experience.

The Bobble water bottle, available at trendy American Apparel clothing stores, is designed with a replaceable pop-up spout with an attached carbon filter. The bottles cost about $15 and are meant for 300 refills, or two months of use.

“Carbon filters are actually really good places for bacteria to grow,” said McGeer.

While the cartridges remove things that change taste, they don’t actually remove bacteria, she said, and since the filters aren’t really washable, the bacteria level in the water is likely worse than not using a filter at all.

You don’t need a fancy water bottle. Reusable water bottles can be reasonably priced and are even available for $1 at discount stores. This is also preferable over refilling one-time use bottles.

According to the FAQs about bottled water on Health Canada’s website, single-use bottles shouldn’t be reused as there is a risk for bacteria to grow if not cleaned properly.

Health Canada suggests wide-necked, reusable bottles as they are easier to wash with hot soapy water between uses.

“The worst water bottles are the sports bottles,” said Gerba. “The ones where you push it shut with your finger and you can pop it open again. Those tend to get contaminated more with fecal bacteria if you don’t wash your hands completely.”

Coliform bacteria, or fecal bacteria, is found more often in those types of bottles than any other reusable bottles, said Gerba.

They are also harder to clean.

“The more you reuse it the more bacteria you tend to get in them,” he said. “I’d avoid the push down button type if I could.”

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