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Understanding Waterborne Pathogens and the Means to Avoid Them

Waterborne pathogens are the most common pollutants throughout our country. Since they are so widespread, it is crucial to know how to avoid them. As the old saying goes, "it's easier to stop something from happening in the first place than to fix the damages after it has happened."

Waterborne pathogens – How They Spread

There are many ways water can come in contact with pathogens.

  • One of the most common ways waterborne pathogens spread is when the fecal matter comes in contact with water.

It may seem far-fetched, but it tends to happen more often than you might think.

For example, if an animal has done its business near a river, and that river is the primary source of water for your municipal water plant, there's a high chance that their filtering system might be too old to block specific bacteria. And even if they use chlorine, it's not 100% effective.

  • The most common pathogen that stems from water contacting fecal matter is E. Coli.

You probably remember the recent romaine lettuce panic. The food was infected with E. Coli because the bacteria had infiltrated the irrigation water. And just like other waterborne pathogens, the E. Coli stuck to the food and contaminated 210 people. Out of these, five people died.

While that may be a meager 2.3% deaths out of all the infected people, the surviving patients didn't do too well either. E. Coli symptoms include:

  • nausea,
  • vomiting,
  • cramps,
  • and diarrhea.

Sometimes the bacteria can also cause fever, malaise, and loss of appetite. The conclusion is that you ever contact this pathogen, you won't have a good time.

Most other waterborne pathogens cause similar symptoms and spread in similar ways. Avoiding them may seem simple. "Just don't drink infected water, and don't wash your food in it." But it's not that simple. You can't see pathogens with the naked eye. And until you find out about the infection, your symptoms might already be showing.

Waterborne pathogens that affect swimmers

Hotel pools cause 32% of swimming-related diseases in our country.

  • Pathogens like Cryptosporidium, Legionella, and Pseudomonas are the main culprits in such cases.
  • Accidentally swallowing even a little infected water can turn healthy adults sick for weeks.
  • Stomach cramps, nausea, watery diarrhea, and vomiting are the most common symptoms.

Legionella and Pseudomonas can also cause rashes and respiratory problems. What's even more worrying is that disinfectants might not be able to get rid of them quickly. If workers fail to clean the area properly, these bacteria can grow and form a biofilm. The biofilm offers them extra protection and grants them the ability to spread effortlessly.

Although not necessarily lethal, the two can often cause severe complications if left untreated. Legionella primarily targets smokers and people with lung problems. It causes severe pneumonia that you should never ignore.

  • If you notice pneumonia-like symptoms after swimming in a pool, contact your doctor immediately.

And you're not exactly safe if you want to swim in nature either. Ponds, lakes, and oceans can also spread waterborne pathogens.

One of the most common diseases you can get is Cercarial Dermatitis.

  • More commonly known as Swimmer's Itch, this illness appears as a skin rash.
  • It's an allergic reaction to parasites that try to leech onto your skin.
  • How these parasites find their way into the water is a little more complicated, but it happens often.

The parasites live inside the blood of birds and a few mammals. They produce eggs that pass through feces. If an infected bird happens to lay the eggs into a pool of water, the eggs hatch, and they release larvae. If the larvae infect snails, they develop further. The snails then release new larvae into the water. These later try to leech onto anything that they catch. Fortunately, human bodies aren't great hosts for them, so they eventually die.

But they still cause a nasty, itchy rash. Children are most affected because these larvae tend to stay on the shallow side of the water. Fortunately, however, Swimmer's Itch is not contagious. One infected human can't spread it to another. And even though it passes in a maximum of a couple of days, it can still be annoying.

  • You can bathe in Epsom salts or baking soda or use an anti-itch lotion to reduce its effects.

What can you do to prevent waterborne pathogens?

To prevent waterborne pathogens, it is best to eliminate them before they get a chance to enter your drinking water. We talked about chlorination earlier and how it's not always efficient. Other methods can also be used, such as ozonation and boiling. But they're not very convenient. Let's talk about them a little before we get to the methods that work.


You probably already thought about this yourself. Boiling pretty efficient at killing most bacteria. But is it convenient? No, it isn't. Imagine having to boil water every time you were thirsty. Sure, you can boil a whole batch and store it in the fridge. But that batch also needs to be pasteurized. Otherwise, you risk of letting it get infected again. All of this takes a lot of precious time from your schedule. You're better off with a more straightforward method.


You're going to need ozone for this method to work. So you're at a handicap from the start. You can't just go out to the store and buy ozone tubes. You need machinery that can produce it. And that is immensely costly. The machine itself is also hard to maintain and operate. That's too bad because the method works. But unless you have some specialization in working it out, you're far better off trying something else.


The distillation process is very similar to boiling but it adds a few extra steps. Instead of letting the steam loose, a distillation system traps it inside once it condenses and lets it slide through another tube once it turns back into water. Because of the high heat and the fact that inorganic materials get left behind, distillation might be one of the most convenient methods of removing pathogens from water. Do be aware, however, that the process is fairly time-consuming.

Reverse Osmosis Filtration

You've probably heard of reverse osmosis systems before. They're similar to traditional water filters in the sense that they remove pollutants. However, the process is a little more complex and significantly more effective at removing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The system works by applying pressure on the incoming water so that only the water itself can permeate the unit's membrane whilst the pollutants get left behind. Some RO systems even incorporate pre and post-filtering units for even better results. But for most intents and purposes, just about any RO system is good at removing bacteria, parasites, and viruses.

Filtration by Micron Size

Not all regular water filters are effective at removing all types of pathogens. Filtration effectiveness depends on the micron size of the pollutant, and, at times, even on the velocity that the pollutant travels through the pipes. This can be directly affected by the speed of the flow of water. There are too many variables to calculate when it comes to the speed factor (including GPM, Molecular Weight Cut Off and so forth).

If you plan on getting a water filter, do yourself a favor and get one that has nanofiltration capabilities. More specifically, to be as safe as humanly possible, you'll want a filter with the capability of removing pollutants as low as 0.001 microns. If you can't find one like that, then consider getting variations anywhere between 0.008 to 0.01 microns. 

UV Water Purification

Another method that works wonders when it comes to removing pathogens is UV water purification. As far as efficiency goes, it's by far the best one if your sole goal is to remove bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other microorganisms. However, the method does have its own downsides. 

For a start, the UV-C rays can be easily blocked by inorganic materials. If your water supply has heavy metals, sediment, turbidity, and other light-blocking elements inside of it, the ultraviolet water purifier won't be able to do its job properly. So you'll need a proper pre-filtering system. And even hard minerals such as calcium and magnesium can block the rays, so you'll need a water descaler if you have hard water.

Secondly, it requires electricity. While most UV water purifiers won't consume much, it means that unless you have a backup generator, your water supply will be susceptible to bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other pathogens until the power comes back on. 

Closing thoughts

Waterborne pathogens are no joke. Water testing regularly finds them in lots of places in the United States and beyond. If you rely on well water (and we all know the EPA does not regulate private wells), you should test your water for contaminants and waterborne pathogens at least once a year.

While not all of these microorganisms are necessarily lethal, all can and will cause dreadful symptoms. Particularly dangerous for children, these unseen threats can lead to real health disasters for the little ones.

It is best to prevent contacting them rather than go through hospitalization. Otherwise, you'll lose precious time, money, and you'll go through a lot of stress trying to fix an avoidable problem. Take the necessary steps today and ensure that you and your loved ones remain protected.