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article imageStudy says daily showers may spray us with more than water

By Bob Ewing     Sep 14, 2009 in Health
The morning shower wakes you up and makes you feel clean but it may also deliver a face full of potentially pathogenic bacteria.
A recent University of Colorado at Boulder study analyzed approximately 50 shower heads from nine cities in seven states that included New York City, Chicago and Denver.
The University press release says the project researchers determined nearly 30 percent of the devices harbored significant levels of Mycobacterium avium. Mycobacterium avium is a pathogen linked to pulmonary disease that most often infects people with compromised immune systems; however, now and then it will infect healthy people.
In the release, CU-Boulder Distinguished Professor Norman Pace, lead study author is quoted as saying, "If you are getting a face full of water when you first turn your shower on, that means you are probably getting a particularly high load of Mycobacterium avium, which may not be too healthy.
Apparently M. avium and related pathogens combined to form slimy "biofilms" that clung to the inside of shower heads at more than 100 times the "background" levels of municipal water.
The study appeared in the Sept. 14 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Co-authors of the study included CU-Boulder researchers Leah Feazel, Laura Baumgartner, Kristen Peterson and Daniel Frank and University Colorado Denver pediatrics department Associate Professor Kirk Harris.
The study, which was supported the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is part of a larger effort by Pace and his colleagues to assess the microbiology of indoor environments and was supported by Research at National Jewish Hospital in Denver.
There are indications the increases in pulmonary infections in the United States in recent decades from so-called "non-tuberculosis" mycobacteria species like M. avium may be linked to people taking more showers and fewer baths.
As water flows out of the shower head in can disperse pathogen-filled droplets that suspend themselves in the air. These droplets are readily inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs.
Tiredness, a persistent, dry cough, shortness of breath, weakness and "generally feeling bad," are all symptoms of pulmonary disease caused by M. avium.
Shower heads in homes, apartment buildings and public places in New York, Illinois, Colorado, Tennessee and North Dakota were examined.
Small towns and cities, many of which were using well water rather than municipal water were the first locations the researchers choose to conduct their tests.
The release quotes the study’s lead author, Feazel as saying, "We were starting to conclude that pathogen levels we detected in the shower heads were pretty boring. Then we worked up the New York data and saw a lot of M. avium. It completely reinvigorated the study."
Feazel also broke several individual shower heads into small pieces, coated them with gold, used a fluorescent dye to stain the surfaces and used a scanning electron microscope to look at the surfaces in detail.
"Once we started analyzing the big metropolitan data, it suddenly became a huge story to us," said Feazel.
Are showers hazardous to our health?
Yahoo News reports co-author Laura Baumgartner suggests switching to a metal shower head, especially one with a filter than can be changed regularly, can help reduce the buildup of pathogens.
As well, stepping outside the room, briefly, after turning the shower on, can reduce the likelihood of inhaling pathogens that get pushed out of the shower head with the first burst of water.
"Probably not, if your immune system is not compromised in some way," said Pace.
"But it's like anything else -- there is a risk associated with it." Pace said since plastic shower heads appear to "load up" with more pathogen-enriched biofilms, metal shower heads may be a good alternative.”
"There are lessons to be learned here in terms of how we handle and monitor water," said Pace.
"Water monitoring in this country is frankly archaic. The tools now exist to monitor it far more accurately and far less expensively that what is routinely being done today."
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