“Access to safe water is essential in order for a child to survive and successfully develop the ability to learn, earn and thrive.”
— Clarissa Brocklehurst, Chief, The UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Project
Water is life. However, in this world where three quarters of the planet is part water and yet only one percent is safe for human consumption, we are in constant risk of diseases caused by contaminants in water.
At present, the ingestion of unsafe drinking water is one of the major causes of waterborne diseases including hepatitis, typhoid, and diarrhea, which is the second most fatal disease for children under five. Waterborne diseases cause 1.4 million infant deaths every year. Fatalities in children caused by diarrheal diseases outnumber deaths due to AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.
Waterborne diseases are commonly caused by coliform bacteria that find their way to water systems. Coliform bacteria are organisms that are generally harmless; they are present in the environment and in the feces of warm-blooded animals and humans. However, coliform contamination of drinking water may indicate that pathogens or disease-causing organisms are also present in the water.
Pathogens in water systems mostly come from feces of humans or animals. Some pathogens that have gained notoriety in the past decades are giardia lamblia (giardiasis), cryptosporidium (cryptosporidiosis), hepatitis a (liver-related diseases), and helminths (parasitic worms).
Coliform bacteria in drinking water are categorized into three groups – total coliform, fecal coliform, and E. coli – and pose different levels of risk. The source for total coliform bacteria is probably environmental and fecal contamination is unlikely. On the other hand, the presence of fecal coliform and E. coli indicates recent fecal contamination, and there is greater risk of having pathogens in the water.
Fecal coliform bacteria or E. coli contamination of a water system may pose immediate risk to anyone consuming the contaminated water. A condition like this requires government intervention through health advisories, investigation, and the resolution of the problem to prevent the outbreak of waterborne diseases.