First direct link found between bacteria in drinking water and stomach ulcers

June 03, 1999

Harrisburg, PA -- Penn State Harrisburg researchers report they have found the first direct link between the presence of a bacterium in Pennsylvania drinking water and stomach ulcers.

The research team headed by Katherine H. Baker, assistant professor of environmental microbiology, revealed this week it has tied Helicobacter pylori in well water and clinical infection in persons drinking from that supply. Helicobacter pylori is an organism linked to the cause of at least 75 percent of all stomach ulcers and two types of stomach cancers.

The Penn State Harrisburg researchers made the association between water containing H. pylori and the infection through tests of private wells supplying drinking water to individual households. Interviews with residents who consumed the water found a statistically significant correlation between presence of the bacterium and cases of stomach ulcers.

Baker said drinking water is generally considered safe when coliform bacterium is not present. But the ulcer-causing bacterium was found in coliform-free water samples, she added. "What this really means is that our current methods for testing drinking water may be saying that water is fine while H. pylori may actually be present," she said.

The research findings, released at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Chicago, was described by the team as the first to "demonstrate a direct link between contaminated drinking water and stomach ulcers." Baker said the study involved private, untreated water supplies and not municipal water sources, which are less likely to contain the organism.

Working with Jon Hegarty, a graduate student in the Penn State Harrisburg Environmental Pollution Control program, Baker previously identified the presence of H. pylori in well and surface waters in the region more than one year ago.

In that study, the bacterium was found in more than 75 percent of the tested surface water samples. That research represented the first report of live H. pylori in surface water in the United States, demonstrating a major reservoir for the organism outside the human body.

In the United States, an estimated 2.5 million new H. pylori infections occur each year. Peptic ulcer disease affects nearly 5 million people with treatment costs exceeding $5 billion, not including indirect costs due to work and productivity loss. Approximately 16,000 deaths are attributed annually to complications of peptic ulcer disease.

Penn State

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