What Diseases Can You Catch From Water That’s Touched a Dead Body?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 22 2013 7:03 PM

Dead in the Water

Which diseases can you catch from drinking water that’s had a corpse floating in it?

Mmm ... water. Now that's refreshing!
Mmm ... water. Now that's refreshing!

Photo by Lambert/Getty Images

The body of a Canadian tourist was discovered in a water tank on top of a Los Angeles hotel on Tuesday. Local health officials have ordered people not to drink the hotel’s water (though tests indicate that the water did not contain harmful bacteria). Would drinking corpse water make you sick?

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Not necessarily. If the body belonged to a generally healthy person, you might get sick from E. coli or another coliform bacteria from the deceased’s intestine. But that’s unlikely. Most bacteria don’t survive long outside of the living human body, so pathogens would probably die in the water before they could do you any harm. Bacteria also thrive only within a certain temperature range, so hot or cold weather could hamper their spread, too. (A representative of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told NBC that a cold spell may have prevented the spread of bacteria in this particular case.) And since drinking water is treated with chlorine or other disinfectants for the express purpose of killing harmful fecal bacteria, dangerous germs have an even smaller chance of survival in a water tank than in, say, a lake.

However, coliform bacteria, which occur naturally in healthy people’s lower intestinal tract and feces, could conceivably diffuse through the water and survive long enough to make you sick. When ingested, coliform bacteria can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal symptoms, but they’re treatable with antibiotics.

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If the body belonged to someone with an infectious disease, you might be in trouble. Hepatitis A, tuberculosis, cholera, and some bacteria that cause pneumonia can be spread through water, for instance. Some infectious bacteria, viruses, and parasites are chlorine-resistant, which makes them more dangerous in the water supply than coliform bacteria.

People who drink or bathe with water that’s been contaminated by a corpse are more likely to experience psychological effects than physical illness. Learning that you’ve inadvertently been in such indirect yet intimate contact with a dead body could be traumatic, and it may cause anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which are treatable with psychotherapy or antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gregory J. Davis of University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

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