Dangerous Pathogens found in Rivers

Millions of invisible microorganisms are silently swimming around in our waters, each fulfilling a different and vital function in their ecosystems. Without microorganisms, life on this planet would not be possible. In fact, microorganisms make up two-thirds of life on earth and date back to 3.5 billion years. As you can imagine, they have evolved and adapted to every type of environment known. That is why we still find them in the most extreme places. And they are hungry little critters too! They eat just about anything. And what’s more, we’re discovering new ones every day.

Would you believe that micro-algae produce 50% of our oxygen on the planet? Fungi and bacteria, on the other hand, renew material by converting organic matter from dead animals. And intestinal bacteria in humans helps them digest their food.

Interestingly, the Dutchman Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes in 1674 (kudos once again to the Dutch!) Since those days we’ve learned a lot about how they work.

Life on earth is made up of 3 domains, namely Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. The first two consist of single-cell microbes with no nucleus (called prokaryotes) while the third does have a nucleus. The Bacteria domain contains, well, bacteria. The Archaea domain contains microbes that look like bacteria but act in different ways. They often live in extreme places like the cold deep sea, hot geysers or volcanoes.

The earliest bacteria fossils found in rocks revealed they date back to almost 400 million years ago and are today very much part of the waters that we encounter.

Read our blog: The Health of our Waters and Innovations to Protect Them

While most cities and towns do clean their waters by putting them through filtrations, not all can successfully remove harmful bacteria. The World Health Organisation states that at least 2 billion people globally drink contaminated water causing more than half a million people to die annually from health-related issues connected to unsafe drinking water.

On that cheery note, let’s take a look at seven of the most common bacteria found in water and what this might mean for your health:

1. Cryptosporidium

Also known as “Crypto” (not to be confused with the digital currency), this organism works very similar to a parasite, although it’s actually a protozoan (a group of single-celled eukaryotes that feed on organic matter). This organism can even be found in cities with clean water. Crypto can be found living in the intestine of humans and animals, and typically passed in the stool of an infected animal or human. It has a protective outer shell that actually makes it resistant to chlorine disinfectants. In the US, Crypto is considered the leading cause of water-borne disease in humans.

Found: In drinking water, and in recreational waters such as swimming pools, jacuzzis, fountains, lakes, rivers, springs or streams as these bodies of water can easily be contaminated with infected human or animal faeces.

2. Legionella pneumophila

Legionella pneumophila is an intracellular pathogen and a common cause of Legionnaires disease – a very serious bacterial infection that has been fatal in some cases. From the 30 known Legionella species, Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1 is responsible for most human infections. According to the CDC, in Europe and North America Legionella pneumophila accounts for 1–16% of all community-acquired pneumonias that require hospitalization. There is an increased risk for Legionella spp. infections resulting from stagnant or standing water in plumbing systems after the temporary shutdown of buildings and reductions in normal water use, as was the case with numerous Covid-19 lockdowns.

Found: in freshwater environments such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs, but also in water pipes and air conditioning systems.

3. Salmonella

We’ve all heard of salmonella poisoning, which is often associated with contaminated food. But it can also contaminate water and symptoms can become apparent up to three days after consumption. Furthermore, salmonella is the etiological agent of more severe systemic diseases such as typhoid and paratyphoid fevers, according to Science Direct. However, in industrialised nations, Salmonella water-borne outbreaks are very rare. But, did you know that Salmonella strains can survive in water for several months?

Found: Salmonella can enter the water through infected animals and humans and, according to the CDC, through sewage overflows, sewage systems that are not working properly, polluted stormwater runoff, and agricultural runoff.

4. Giardia Lamblia

This is a parasite that causes the infection, giardiasis (aka Beaver Fever). The incubation period for this organism is two weeks. Although unpleasant, it is not usually dangerous.

Found: It’s most commonly found in areas with poor sanitation (such as surfaces or in soil or contaminated food) as well as in unsafe water, or water that has been contaminated with faeces from infected people or animals.

5. Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. It might surprise you to learn that your water can also be contaminated with this infection! Hepatitis A has a very long incubation period and your symptoms may not show before twenty-eight days after being exposed. Hepatitis A is preventable by vaccine.

Found: When any water source, including private wells, is contaminated with faeces from infected humans, the water can potentially spread the Hepatitis A virus.

6. Campylobacter Jejuni

Campylobacter Jejuni is the most common cause of food poisoning in Europe and the US. This bacteria is naturally found in the intestines of cattle, household pets, wild birds, swine and rodents. Being exposed to this odd-sounding organism can lead to symptoms appearing between two and ten days after exposure.

Found: untreated surface water and manure caused by faecal matter, raw or undercooked poultry, seafood or meat (or anything that touched it, so a reminder to us all to clean chopping boards properly after use), unpasteurized milk (if contaminated) and even on fruits and vegetables if they are contaminated.

7. Escherichia Coli

E. Coli is a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains are harmless and a vital part of the human intestinal tract, some can make you very ill. Some can cause diarrhoea, while others can cause respiratory illness and pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and other types of illnesses.

Found: raw cake batter, contaminated water or food

To avoid being contaminated by harmful microorganisms in the home it is important to be stringent about hygiene. Common advice applies: Wash hands with soap and hot water before and after handling food, and after using the bathroom, changing diapers; or handling pets. Do not wash raw meat before cooking as this can spread bacteria around in your kitchen.

To avoid contamination from bodies of water, the following advice applies:

Do not swallow water from swimming pools, jacuzzis, lakes, ponds, rivers, etc. Shower before and after swimming.

Check the weather. On very hot days and after heavy rainfalls bacteria counts rise dramatically leaving you more susceptible.

We don‘t mean to scare you, but it is important to understand how easy it is to become infected with pathogens and the precautions you can take to avoid contamination. Happy swimming!