Do You Really Know Your Water? - Part I

When it comes to our drinking water a clear appearance and crisp taste can be all we need to determine that it is safe to drink, but there is more to our water than meets the eye. Instinctively we shudder at the idea of drinking dirty smelly water. While avoiding dirty water is always a good call, there can still be unseen dangers lurking even in a glass of seemingly clean water. If water holds disease causing bacteria, regardless of its clarity and sparkle, you will not want to drink it.

Regardless of any other factors, water piped into the home must be potable. To be potable, it should be completely free of daisease organisms. Water is a breeding ground for a large variety of organisms. It does not produce these organisms; it merely is an ideal medium in which they can grow.

These organisms enter water through a variety of sources. They enter from natural causes, surface drainage and sewage. Many of the organisms in water are harmless and in certain cases they can be beneficial.

We are primarily concerned here with organisms which are potential disease-producers. These are of five types:

  • Bacteria
  • Protozoa
  • Worms
  • Viruses
  • Fungi

The presence of certain organisms of these various types can lead to such infectious diseases as typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera, jaundice, hepatitis, undulant fever and tularemia. Biologically, there are two major classifications for our purposes. We can classify water organisms either as members of the plant or animal kingdoms. The following ways are the natural ways in which water is purified.

  • Bacteria and algae consume organic waste
  • Micro-organisms devour bacteria and algae
  • Oxidation renders organic matter harmless
  • Ultra-violet rays of sun have germicidal effects

Forms of lower life in water


These organisms are found throughout the world. They constitute the chief group of aquatic plants both in sea and fresh water. Algae range in size from microscopic organisms to giant seaweeds several hundred feet in length. They contain chlorophyll and other pigments which give them a variety of colors.

They manufacture their food by photosynthesis. Algae thrives well in stagnant surface waters especially during the warm weather. Algae gives water fishy, grassy and other more objectionable odors. While algae-laden waters are repulsive to man, animals unfortunately will drink them. The presence of blue-green algae has been known to cause the death of cattle drinking this water.


Fungi are another large group of plant form. Like algae, fungi have many varieties; included among these are molds and bacteria. Fungi are not able to manufacture their own food. They exist by feeding on living things or on dead organic matter. Depending on their individual characteristics, they are usually colorless but may vary in this respect.


One important category of fungi is mold. This group of fungi feeds entirely on organic matter. They decompose carbohydrates such as sugars, starches and fats as well as proteins and other substances. They thrive ideally in water that has a temperature range of approximately 80 degrees to 100 degrees F. The presence of molds is generally a strong indicator of heavy pollution of water.


Bacteria are another important class of fungi. Among the higher organisms in this group are iron, manganese and sulphur bacteria. These higher bacteria gain their energy from the oxidation of simple organic substances. Lower forms of bacteria can be grouped as those that are helpful and those that are harmful to man. Those harmful to man are mainly the disease-producing organisms. Helpful organisms hasten the process of decomposing organic matter and by feeding on waste material; they aid in the purifying of water.

All bacteria are sensitive to the temperature and pH of water. Some bacteria can tolerate acid water. But for the most part, they thrive best in waters that have a pH between 6.5 to 7.5, which is essentially neutral waters. As to temperature, most pathogenic or disease bacteria thrive best in water of body temperature. Beyond this, no hard and fast statements can be made.

Some bacteria are more resistant to heat than are others. Some are more sensitive to cold. At low temperatures, for example, some bacteria may become dormant for long periods of time but will continue to exist. The waste products of their own growth can hamper bacteria and may even prove toxic to them.


Animal forms like plant life thrive in water providing conditions are right. Among the higher forms of animal life found in water are fish, amphibians (turtles and frogs), mollusks (snails and shellfish) and anthropoids (lobsters, crabs, water insects, water mites and others). Our concern here is with those lower forms of animal life in water. Again, some are helpful to man as scavengers; others are injurious as possible sources of infection.


There are three types of worms found in water. For the most part, they dwell in the bed of the material at the bottom of lakes and streams. There they do important work as scavengers. The rotifers are the only organisms in this category at or near the surface. They live primarily in stagnant fresh water. The eggs and larvae of various intestinal worms found in man and warm-blooded animals pollute the water at times. They do not generally cause widespread infection for several reasons. They are relatively few and are so large they can be filtered out of water with comparative ease.


Another basic classification in the animal kingdom is that group of microscopic animals known as protozoa. These one-celled organisms live mainly in water either at or near the surface or at great depths in the oceans. Many live as parasites in the bodies of man and animals.

Sometimes, drinking water becomes infested with certain protozoa which are not disease-producing. When present, they give the water a fishy taste and odor. Some protozoa are aerobic, that is, they exist only where free oxygen is available. Some exist where no free oxygen is available. Others can either be aerobic or anaerobic.


As yet not too well understood is that group of parasitic forms known as viruses. Too small to be seen under a microscope, viruses can cause disease in both plants and animals. Viruses can pass through porcelain filters that can screen out bacteria. At least one virus that produces infectious hepatitis is waterborne. Drinking water contaminated with this virus is hazardous.


As you can see from even this brief summary, there is a tremendous variety of living organisms in water. To understand and classify the countless varieties requires an immense amount of knowledge and time. These organisms, whether plant or animal forms, are pathogenic or disease-producing; they make water unsafe to drink.

For obvious reasons, even where there is just a possibility that water contains pathogenic organisms, it must be considered contaminated. While there is a large and varied number of pathogens, no single contaminated water supply is apt to contain more than a few of these countless varieties. On one hand this is fortunate but, at the same time it makes detection of pathogens extremely difficult in terms of a routine water analysis.

Studies have proven that these coliform bacteria indicate the presence of human or animal waste in water. Coliform bacteria naturally exist in the intestines of humans and certain animals. Thus, the presence of these bacteria in water is accepted proof that the water has been contaminated by human or animal wastes.

Although such water may contain no pathogens, an infected person, animal or a carrier of disease, could add pathogens at any moment! Thus, immediate corrective action must be taken. The presence of coliform bacteria shows water is contaminated by human wastes and is potentially contaminated with pathogens. In short, these bacteria become a measure of guilt by association.

The other side is this: the mere absence of coliform bacteria does not assure there are no pathogens. However, this is considered unlikely.

Just how can water be tested for the presence of coliform bacteria?

These organisms cause the fermentation of lactose (the crystalline sugar compound in milk). When water containing coliform bacteria are placed in a lactose culture; it will cause fermentation resulting in the form of gas. This confirms the suspicions.

The Maximum Acceptable Concentration (MAC) for coliforms in drinking water is zero organisms detectable per 100 ml. Recognizing the danger, what can be done to provide adequate protection against contamination? When a water supply becomes contaminated, correct the problem at once. This means going beyond treatment alone - important as this may be.

It is a basic rule of water sanitation to get to the source of the problem and eliminate it. If a well, for example, becomes badly contaminated, it is necessary to trace the contamination to its source and, if possible, remedy the situation. It may even be necessary to seek out a new source of supply. To learn more about how to combat these various sources of contamination, continue reading our next blog: Do You Really Know Your Water Part 2.