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Stagnant Home Water Pipes Harbor Millions of Bacteria

Millions of bacteria grow inside a home's water pipes when they're not being used. (epa.gov)
Millions of bacteria grow inside a home's water pipes when they're not being used. (epa.gov)
April 2, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Vacation season has kicked off for many on Spring Break, and summer is just around the corner – but scientists say when you leave home for a week or more, something dangerous may sneak into the water pipes.

Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have developed a model to show how bacteria grows in plumbing systems. Study co-author and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Wen-Tso Liu says tap water is teeming with microbial life which, for the most part, is harmless – but it can cause health issues for the elderly or people with a compromised immune system.

He says water that sits for a few days inside pipes can contain millions of bacteria.

"For the fresh water coming into the house, they attach on the surface of the pipe and actually dwell there and it's become their playground," he says.

Tso Liu says if you want to make sure your water is fresh after vacation, simply turn on the hot water and let it run for a few minutes, which will flush out the majority of the microbes. Incidents of waterborne infections resulting from indoor plumbing are rare, but he explains this study will help public health departments assess drinking-water quality.

He adds in rare cases, aging or corroded water pipes can lead to Legionella bacteria in drinking water, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of 10 people who get Legionnaires' disease will die from the infection.

"It does enter the house and it does dwell inside the pipe surface,” he says, “and when there are more elder people or immune-compromised persons, sometimes can be exposed to this pathogen in low dosage and it does lead to health concerns. "

Tso Liu acknowledges that running the faucet for a few minutes flies in the face of water-conservation practices. He suggests engineers, public health organizations, scientists and municipal water suppliers should collaborate to find ways to both conserve and keep tap water safe.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IN