How safe is the water from your dispenser?

Monday January 21 2019

A water dispenser has to be checked regularly

A water dispenser has to be checked regularly for any build up of dirt that could be a breeding ground for germs. Photo by Godfrey Lugaaju 

By Joan Salmon

With her back paining, and a terrible headache, Martha was urgent in getting a blood test for she was certain she was going down with malaria. However, to her astonishment, the results revealed she had a bacterial infection. Getting to see a doctor, she was asked a few questions. However, one that stood out was, “where do you get your water for drinking?” “From a water dispenser,” she responded. “Beware, not all that water is safe for you. You are better off boiling some in the kettle, if you have any at your work place,” she was advised.

Many institutions and public offices have water dispensers and we were thankful for this innovation as it meant we could quench our thirst for not so much. More to that, we could have it to our desired temperatures. However, many of us have never questioned the quality of this water as we are more concerned with the fact that we do not have to grapple with thirst as in times past.

Dr Robert Ssooka of Makerere University Hospital, says, “Ideally, water from a water dispenser should be clean because it should have gone through purification. Most companies use chlorination, and if done well, should kill 99 per cent of the bacteria.”
That said, Dr David Musoke, an Environmental Health specialist at Makerere University School of Public Health, says, there are three places to consider when looking at contamination regarding water dispensers.

“It should be treated and not refilled,” Dr Musoke asserts. Therefore, with the hope that the containers carrying the water are not counterfeited, and that the water is also well processed, 99 per cent of the time, it should be good and appropriate for consumption.”
Dr Ssooka interjects saying that contamination can also happen at the point of filling the bottles with the water, “Anything can go wrong as water is being transferred from the treatment place to the bottles.”

Dispenser system
“Most systems have carbon filters which need to be cleaned by the companies that supply the dispensers because they have professionals trained for the job,” Dr Ssooka says. When not cleaned, seeing that water has a percentage of bacteria, it multiplies and will with time cause the consumers disease.
Besides that, if the system has any deficiencies, for example, when the tubing has faced wear and tear the quality of the water that a consumer gets can be compromised.
“However, while inspection and repairs of the dispenser system would address this concern, most are done when the dispenser breaks down. Therefore, frequent inspection and maintenance of the dispenser system is a must,” Dr Musoke adds.

Container used for drinking water
Some use disposable cups or their own containers. But Dr Musoke sights that an issue arises when the disposable cups are being taken from a batch; “if one’s hands are contaminated and they touch some of the cups, the next user may be at risk. Innovations, such as a system where cups are stored and one can only get a cup at a time would help out,” he says.
“Others use disposables and put them back on the pile of unused cups which is dangerous. At times, it is because they are unaware that the cups are not reusable while others simply lack where to dispose of the used cups,” adds Dr Musoke.

That calls for a reminder near the water dispenser that once a cup is used, it must be disposed of. For that reason, a place for disposal of the cups (such as waste bin) must always be provided, notes Dr Musoke. Those that use their own containers to get water from the dispenser should clean them regularly.
Other problems affecting mineral water is when institutions stock too many of them that the water sometimes expires.
“Past the expiry date, the quality is compromised which becomes a danger to the user,” Dr Musoke points out.

Consumers of such contaminated water are likely to suffer from diarrhoea-related diseases. Dr Musoke says they are also called faecal-oral diseases because the contamination is always in one way or another linked to faecal matter, particularly of humans. Besides that, fingers are the major link in transfer of contamination and the way of entry is through the mouth. These diseases include diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid and present with a running stomach, vomiting, and fever.
Nonetheless, Dr Ssooka says not all contaminated water will make one sick because there must be a certain concentration of disease-carrying bacteria in one’s body before they become sick.
“These infections are also usually fought by one’s immune system. However, when one has low immunity, for example one with HIV/Aids, is malnourished, those that have just undergone a transplant, one with blood cancers, are easily affected,” he adds.

If one must take water from a dispenser, Dr Ssooka says, rather than taking cold water, it would be better to get hot water and let it cool. But that would mean that one takes the time to find out if the water has actually boiled.
For example, for some dispensers, if the red light is still showing, the water is still boiling, you need to wait until it goes off to be sure it has actually boiled hence being safe.