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Friday, September 18, 2009

A Deadly Shower?

Remember Janet Leigh's frightening shower scene in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho? What viewer could ever forget the terrifying soundtrack and brutal murder? In fact, reports say that after Janet saw the movie at the premier, she was never able to take a shower due to feeling “too vulnerable."

Well, those shower fears are back in a shocking, yet less brutal version. A research team from the University of Colorado recently found opportunistic microbes, which thrive in the dark and wet environment of a showerhead, might cause problems for some people.

Study author Leah Feazel reports in the findings published in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "If you're pregnant, a substance abuser or otherwise immune-compromised with cystic fibrosis, cancer, AIDS or a recent organ transplant, you may be at risk." (Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune, September 15 2009) Virginia Tech microbiologist Joseph O. Falkinham welcomed the findings and added, "In addition to people with weakened immune systems, studies showed increased M. avium infections in slender, elderly people who have a single gene for cystic fibrosis, but not the disease itself." (Randolph E. Schmid, Yahoo Science News, September 14 2009)

The Problem

The main culprit is an organism called Mycobacterium avium, a relative of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. M. avium infections are increasingly common, perhaps because people take more showers than baths. These mycobacteria -- close relatives of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis -- can be more than 100 times more prevalent in showerheads than in the water in the pipes just upstream, according to the National Academy of Sciences research.

Infections with such non-tuberculosis mycobacteria have risen in recent years, up to six fold since 1997, according to another study. "We saw some exceptionally dirty ones in hotels," said study author Leah Feazel. Symptoms of infection can include tiredness, a persistent, dry cough, shortness of breath, weakness and "generally feeling bad."

"The problem is not just that the microorganisms are enriched in the showerhead," Feazel said. "It's also that the spray nozzle creates a fine mist of tiny water droplets... These tiny, tiny particles can go all the way into your deep lungs," she said. (Jessica Marshall, Discovery News, September 14 2009)

The Risk?

In the University of Colorado paper, the researchers write: "We conclude that showerheads may present a significant potential exposure to aerosolized microbes, including documented opportunistic pathogens."

In general, is it dangerous to take showers? "Probably not, if your immune system is not compromised in some way," author Norman R. Pace says. "But it's like anything else — there is a risk associated with it." Healthy people probably don't need to panic. (Randolph E. Schmid, Yahoo Science News, September 14 2009)

“[The study] is nothing to freak out about because most germs don’t hurt you,” says Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, the director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center. People come into contact with 60,000 types or groups of bacteria on a regular basis, says Tierno, and only one or two percent are pathogenic. (Denise Mann, "Health News,", September 14, 2009)

Aaron E. Glatt, MD, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and president and CEO of the New Island Hospital in Bethpage, N.Y., who reviewed the study for WebMD, says, "Nobody should be changing their personal hygiene preferences based on this article (Colorado research)."

The research, Glatt says, is a basic science investigation. "Before a basic science study can be translated to practical clinical advice, there needs to be a lot of additional scrutiny. Mycobacterium avium and the other non-tuberculous mycobacteria are ubiquitous," he says. (Kathleen Doheny, WebMD Health News, September 14 2009)


Shower heads have nooks and crannies that make them hard to clean. Products with bleach can temporarily remove many microbes, but they just grow back. "People who have filtered showerheads could replace the filter weekly," added co-author of the study, Laura K. Baumgartner. But, cleaning showerheads may be a reasonable thing to do.

"Changing your shower head two to four times a year or switching to a metal one should help reduce the accumulation of bacteria," said Feazel, adding that many people have decades-old shower heads.

Bathing is a good option because the water droplets are too large to penetrate into the lungs, making it less likely people will inhale a pathogen.

And letting the water run a few minutes might flush out the bugs. Stepping outside the room for a minute after turning the shower on can also reduce the likelihood of inhaling pathogens that get driven out of the shower head with the first burst of water.

How about the use of anti-bacterial cleaners? While these cleaners most certainly make everything look clean and shiny, on the microbial level they could be doing more harm than good. Scientists are concerned that the antibacterial agents will select bacteria resistant to them and cross-resistant to antibiotics.

The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that in order to effectively obliterate E. coli with a common antibacterial soap ingredient, the exposure would have to be at a certain temperature for a duration of at least two hours, before effects may be seen.

Adding insult to injury, antibacterial cleaners may not only leave the shower head bacteria in place, but they may also contribute to the formation of allergies. (Sylvia Cochran, "Health and Wellness,", September 15 2009)

Perhaps the pervasive presence of shower head bacteria is a warning that antibacterial soaps are offering a false sense of security and the basic cleaners of yesteryear are really nothing to scoff at.

What is an ION showerhead? According to manufacturers, the ION Shower Head Series is the culmination of years of research performed by water purifier experts to achieve the safest and purest water available for your showing. Does it help remove the harmful bacteria? Your guess is as good as mine.

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