Samples of different brands of bottled water from Ontario and Quebec that were examined by a commercial laboratory recently detected the presence of above average intensity of a particular category of bacteria in a number of testers. Nevertheless, the investigators at the laboratory have ruled out the possibility of these microbes being detrimental for the health.
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It may be mentioned here that the authorities of the commercial laboratory - C-crest Laboratories of Montreal, had settled on undertaking a random examination of a number of branded bottled water bought from separate stores in Ontario and Quebec. The move was initiated when an employee of the laboratory complained that one brand of bottled water had a soiled taste and was resulting in illnesses. During the tests, the examiners detected that over 70 per cent of the bottled water from 10 different brands contained levels of heterotrophic bacteria exceeding the United States Pharmacopeia's (USP) suggested levels. The researchers, however, refused divulge the names of the bottled water brands that contained the bacteria.
All bacteria that consume organic substances are called heterotrophic bacteria. The United States Pharmacopeia is an autonomous organization that lays down the generally accepted benchmarks of medication, food elements as well as dietary supplements. According to the recommendations of the USP, that the level of heterotrophic bacteria should never go over 500 colony forming units or cfu in every millilitre of water meant for drinking. The Montreal-based commercial laboratory that is focused on testing pharmaceutical products detected that the intensity of bacteria in the bottled water samples collected by it varied from 100 cfu to 80,000 cfu for every millilitre of water. According to one of the researchers, Sonish Azam, this count was extremely high compared to the average intensity of heterotrophic bacteria in the samples of tap water collected from different areas. It was found that the average bacteria count in the tap water samples was a mere 170 cfu per millilitre.
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Sonish Azam, who participated in a recent webcast in the wake of the release of the research findings at the American Society of Microbiology conference held in San Diego, said that in a number of bottled water samples the count of heterotrophic bacteria was detected to be horrendous - sometimes a 100 times more than what has been allowed by the United States Pharmacopeia. She admitted that though bottled water was not expected to be free of any microbes, the cfu per millilitre of heterotrophic bacteria found in the bottled water samples was incredibly high. Sonish Azam advocated the laying down of a maximum count for heterotrophic bacteria in drinking water and also to categorize the class of microbes found in the bottled water.
At the same time, Sonish Azam admitted that there was less possibility of any harm or diseases to humans from the heterotrophic bacteria present in bottled water. She further said that the researchers did not find any substance in the tested bottled water samples that had the potential to cause diseases to humans. The director of C-crest Laboratories and co-author of the research, Ali Khamessan too accepted that they did not find any disease causing substance in the bottled water samples tested by them. In fact, he acknowledged that there is no evidence whatsoever that the soiled tasting bottled water consumed by the laboratory employee was responsible for his illness.
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Despite the so-called assurance regarding the safety of drinking bottled water, Health Canada has advised people, especially who are enduring a feeble immune system owing to diseases or surgery, to always consume bottled water after sterilizing it. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that regulatory organizations in Canada and the United States - Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) respectively, are yet to lay down any permissible limit for the level of heterotrophic bacteria in bottled water meant for drinking. On the other hand, long ago the World Health Organization (WHO) has discontinued setting up the total count of bacteria, inclusive of heterotrophic plate count bacteria (HPC).
Substantiating its move to stop recommending the bacteria count in bottled drinking water, the World Health Organization had released a document in 2003 stating that there is no specific evidence that high levels of heterotrophic plate count bacteria (HPC) in bottled drinking water was related to any outbreak of contagious diseases!
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In such a situation, the apprehensions of the researchers regarding the presence of microbes in bottled drinking water may appear to be something like 'storm in bottled water'!
In the meantime, the technical director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, Michel Lavellee has expressed surprise over the fact that the findings of the study by Sonish Azam and her associates have been getting so much publicity. He said that he was really surprised over the developments since the heterotrophic bacteria were 'actually insignificant'. Lavellee, who had retired in 2009 after heading inspection of bottled water for the government of Quebec for two decades, said that the manner in which the study was conducted on bottled water, it would have presented the same results if the investigators had conducted a similar study regarding bacteria count in fresh vegetable and fruits.
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According to Lavellee, the World Health Organization actually stopped recommending any standard for HPC in bottled drinking water owing to a broad agreement that the bacteria did not influence the safety of any consumable product. Studies may find very high levels or low levels of the bacteria in food products, water and beverages, but it actually does not have any bearing whatsoever, he added.
In fact, compared to the cfu of heterotrophic plate count bacteria (HPC) present in bottled drinking water, the count of coliform and fecal coliform bacteria are of greater significance since the presence and concentration of these two forms of bacteria signify whether any product is polluted with a disease bearing microbe, such as E. coli, Lavellee opined speaking from Montreal. Obligatory testing that finds the presence of E. coli in any product would lead the authorities to instantly withdraw the product from the market keeping in view the safety of public health.