Contaminated Water Supply a Real Threat

Charles Hollis

Last month in Albany, N.Y., a 3-year-old girl died and 45 people were hospitalized due to an outbreak of E. coli bacteria. The disease was traced to a contaminated water supply.

While such cases are rare, they do occur. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in the United States up to 900,000 cases of illness and possibly 900 deaths occur as a result of waterborne microbial infections. And a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health states that 35 percent of all reported gastrointestinal illnesses are water-related and preventable.

These statistics are frightening, but pure water is still the healthiest beverage -- far better than sugary sodas or caffeinated coffee. It's recommend that people consume soda and coffee in moderation or not at all, while water is considered an essential requirement for good health and has no limit on consumption. The recommended minimum is eight glasses of water a day to keep the body healthy and hydrated.

Although Houston's municipal water has its proponents, many companies provide an alternative as a refreshment selection for office visitors and as part of their employee wellness program. Some businesses use bottled water; others opt for a point-of-use purification system. It's important to get crystal clear facts about water alternatives before making a decision about which type of water to choose.

Take the Plunge & Make Water Selection Crystal Clear

In general, bottled water products aren't any safer or healthier than municipal water, even though the product may taste better. In fact, about half of all bottled water is simply repackaged municipal water and does not come from a natural mountain spring or well.

By far the most effective process to purify water is distillation, or the process of boiling water and condensing the steam back into liquid. Distillation kills viruses and micro-organisms and removes nearly all harmful substances from drinking water. (Solid material, no matter how small, cannot evaporate.)

However, most water bottlers use a process called reverse osmosis to filter their water, which involves forcing the water through a plastic membrane, thereby removing dissolved solids. Unfortunately, this process does not remove disease-causing micro-organisms such as E. coli, cryptosporidium, and hepatitis A. Nor does it remove other harmful substances found in ground water, such as arsenic and MTBE (a gasoline additive that was detected last month in Lake Houston).

The Food and Drug Administration only requires bottled water to meet the same standards as municipal water and actually inspects bottled water less frequently than a municipal water supply, which falls under the closer scrutiny of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a typical office, bottled water comes in five-gallon jugs delivered by truck by a water provider. The office keeps an inventory of full bottles and loads them into water coolers as needed. Empty bottles are stored until the next delivery to ensure that the bottle deposit is credited to the account.


Extra water bottles can take up precious space, creating a tripping hazard, making an office look cluttered and cutting down on usable floor space.

Bottles that can be cashed in for a deposit at grocery stores are vulnerable to theft.

Employees risk injury from lifting full bottles, which weigh an average of 42 pounds each. A dropped bottle could cause serious injury, not to mention a big mess.

Bottled water tends to collect bacteria, algae and fungi from handling and infrequent maintenance. In addition, bottled water does not usually contain chlorine, which is added to municipal water supplies to stop the growth of bacteria. Every time a bottle is changed, air can get inside the cooler and bacterial growth can develop.

To prevent contaminants from accumulating in bottled water, the water cooler should be cleaned with a chlorine bleach solution regularly. This is something few businesses bother to do.

Providing water in single-serving bottles is expensive, especially if employees take extra bottles home.

Although distilled water can be purchased in bottles, that would not eliminate the problems associated with delivery and changing bottles, not to mention the risk of water recontamination during handling and storage.


Nearly all point-of-use purification systems use the existing municipal water line coming into an office and on-site purification equipment to filter the water. The equipment and methods used by the different systems on the market vary greatly. The purest solution is a distillation point-of-use system.

The more effective point-of-use purification systems are certified by NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation), an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to environmental and public health safety. The NSF develops standards for independent product testing and certification worldwide. The NSF certification on a point-of-use system symbolizes the highest level of assurance that the product will perform as claimed.

Only products that say "NSF Certified" have actually been tested and certified by the NSF. Products claiming to be "tested to NSF standards" or "NSF approved under standards" have not been tested by the NSF. The manufacturer is merely stating that it follows NSF standards.

To date, the most practical and safest alternative to municipal water and bottled water is an NSF-certified water purification system. While these systems are generally more costly than non-NSF-certified systems, they can eliminate most or all of the problems of bad taste, smell and risk of disease associated with water.

However, a quality water purification system usually requires a consumption rate of greater than eight bottles per month to be cost-competitive with bottled water.

Several water purification systems on the market vary widely in price and effectiveness. Those with a simple carbon filter or water softener system can improve the taste and remove some harmful substances, like lead and radium but are not effective against micro-organisms. Also, water filters become weak over time and must be replaced regularly to maintain their effectiveness. Otherwise, they can actually put more contaminants back in the water than they take out.

Choosing a pure water supply for employees encourages water consumption and reduces the intake of soda and coffee. In addition to kicking a tobacco habit, helping employees eliminate a soda and/or coffee habit is one of the best preemptive wellness programs a company can implement. Providing safe, pure drinking water as part of an overall employee wellness program can improve health, reduce absenteeism, improve morale and increase work productivity.

Charlie Hollis is president and CEO of Mirex Aquapure Solutions
(, which provides NSF-certified water purification products.

Original Article: Houston Business Journal - Volume 30 - Number 23 - October 29 - November 4, 1999