How Your Tap Water Can Make You Sick

We all want safe, clean tap water. For the most part, our tap water is filtered and treated before it reaches our homes. But what can happen when these safeguards fail? What are the dangers of drinking or using tap water that is no longer safe? This article will cover recent disease outbreaks caused by unsafe water.

Legionnaire’s disease

Sometimes tap water can be a problem even if you don’t drink it, such as with outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease. Legionnaire’s disease is a type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria. The symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease include shortness of breath, cough, headaches, muscle pains, fever, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Although Legionnaire’s disease can be treated with antibiotics, it has been fatal in around 10% of cases. Legionella bacteria thrives in water by cooperating with other microbes and can inhabit building water systems like air conditioning, humidifiers, and hot tubs. Legionella bacteria become dangerous when this tainted water becomes aerosolized (meaning small particles of water go into the air), allowing the bacteria to be inhaled.

Sadly, there have been several cases of Legionnaire’s disease in the United States. In 2011 at a hotel in Maryland, seven guests developed pneumonia. Legionella bacteria was found in multiple places throughout the hotel including in guest rooms and in pipes leading to the hotel’s water storage tanks. In that same year at a hospital in Pennsylvania, 22 patients experienced pneumonia symptoms and multiple water samples at the hospital tested positive for Legionella bacteria. These examples demonstrate why water safety is important not just for the water that we drink, but for all water that we use.


Giardia is a water-dwelling parasite that can cause Giardiasis, a gastrointestinal infection also known as “beaver fever.” Giardia is one of the most common parasites that can infect humans, especially when it comes to infections caused by unsafe drinking water. Although most Giardia infections are caused drinking dirty water from natural sources (like drinking from a river or lake while camping) there have been some instances of people becoming sick from Giardia without drinking from these natural sources. In 2012, a neighborhood in Utah experienced a Giardia outbreak with 28 people experiencing symptoms. Officials who investigated the outbreak believe that because the neighborhood had recently switched their public water system, the neighborhood experienced low water pressure during the transition. This low pressure allowed contaminated water to flow into the pipes. This Giardia example reveals why it may be important to be aware of the source of your tap water and to pay attention to any changes in your water service.

Tap water in the United States is thoroughly filtered and treated before it reaches anyone’s home. These purification steps help to remove harmful pathogens that can contribute to illness. Although these steps have greatly increased the safety of our tap water, is important to be aware of some of the risks that exist when failures occur in the system. These outbreaks reveal the ways that we might take for granted the safety of our tap water and demonstrate how important it is to maintain water quality all the way from water treatment facilities to our homes.

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