'I wouldn't drink from these' - Scientist's response when he tested our reusable water bottles and coffee cups
In the war against plastics, many are turning to reusable cups and bottles - but could yours be a health hazard? Tom Ough swabbed his to find out
Many of us keep reusable bottles of water in our bags or on our desks, yet almost none of us give a moment's thought to the millions of bacteria, existing across a scale that goes from 'harmless' to 'hospital superbug', that fester within them.
Some fun facts for you, as you consider your bottle:
- a single bacterium, in the right conditions, can divide every 20 minutes, meaning that a colony of one can become a colony of millions within a few hours;
- those right conditions involve warmth, moisture, and nutrients, all of which are abundantly supplied by your bottle;
- it sometimes takes just 10 E. coli bacteria - E. coli is everywhere, and loves human faeces like knights love castles - to make you sick. Very sick.
Just something to bear in mind as Ireland slowly begins to rid itself of single-use plastics. It's stupid, both environmentally and financially, to drink from disposable cups and to regularly buy bottled mineral water, but the price of reusable vessels is that they must be cleaned regularly.
We arranged the tests via Swab and Send, a UK-based project run by scientists hoping to find new antibiotics among the public's cupboards, bins, loose change and water bottles.
They post you swabbing kits, which you return once you've taken samples from your foul possessions. From those samples, they grow Petri dish cultures that show which vile bacteria you've been harbouring, and what undiscovered antibiotics might be among them.
One man's trash, as they say, is another man's secret weapon in the fight against antibiotic resistance, but the principal concern among those of us who gave up our vessels for swabbing was to avoid being named the most foetid member of the team.
I coaxed from my colleagues a total of three water bottles and one coffee cup, supplying one each of my own, and after washing my hands, I took the samples. The swabs were tipped with cotton buds, which I ran round the rim of each vessel, feeling increasingly as if I was cleaning the earholes of coffee-reeking giants.
A couple of weeks later I took a call from Adam Roberts, one of the scientists. Dr Roberts is a senior lecturer in Antimicrobial Chemotherapy and Resistance at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and I am sorry to report that he was unimpressed by our hygiene.
"I would not drink from any of those bottles," he told me. Ouch. We'd avoided the pink agar jelly bloom of E. coli, but five dishes out of six had dark green smears across them. "It's probably going to be Klebsiella," Dr Roberts explained. "It's a type of bacteria that can be associated with faeces, and it can be quite pathogenic. Not all of them (like E. coli, Klebsiella has a number of varieties), but some of them."
Maybe there was something in the water. But as Dr Roberts pointed out: "You guys haven't got ill. You're not falling over with diarrhoeal disease. It looks like you're living with whatever these are quite well."
"Yeah, I guess so," I said, clutching at the life-raft he'd just thrown me. "We've made our peace with the bacteria."
At this point Dr Roberts clarified that, while most bacteria isn't bad bacteria and is indeed often part of a healthy gut, he, personally, draws the line at ingesting water that may be contaminated by faeces.
To which I say: what an ideologue. If I had your stubbornness, Dr Roberts, I would die of thirst.
Germ busters: tips for a clean reusable vessel
- Use a steel or glass bottle, not plastic. Plastic leaks chemicals into your water, and is harder to rid of germs.
- Don't use a slide-top bottle - they harbour the most germs. Straw-tops were found by researchers to be the most hygienic, as the top of the straw doesn't stay moist.
- Handwash your bottle each day you use it. Use hot water, washing-up liquid, and a clean brush or sponge. Once you've washed it, rinse it out, and then leave it to air dry.
- If the bottle has a really stubborn odour, leave it to soak overnight before washing it again.
- Don't share your bottle with anyone - this is how respiratory infections get around.
- Most important of all: don't be put off! If current trends continue, there will be as much plastic in the ocean in 2050 as fish. Avoiding disposables is an easy way of alleviating this problem and washing a bottle every evening is no more arduous than washing up a glass at home.