Health Q: Mold/Bacteria in drinking water

Is it possible for mold or bacteria ingested via contaminated water to remain in one’s system?

Recently, we began to notice a particular smell coming from our kitchen water. Wet washcloths left near the sink would get smelly in less than a day, with the smell becoming very strong after another day or two, so I figured that there was some sort of mold or bacteria in our water supply. The smell could be detected on kitchen surfaces, especially in the narrow space just behind the sink, and in the coffee maker which had parts that we couldn’t get at to clean directly. I began to notice that I could smell the smell sometimes when I burped, usually after having coffee.

After some preliminary investigation, we learned that the city hasn’t found any significant issues with the city supply, and we learned that water heaters can often get a buildup of some kind over time that can lead to the sort of thing we’ve noticed in our home. We replaced our water heater (and subsequently our dishcloths and coffeemaker) and this seemed to solve the problem. Washcloths now only get a very slight musty smell after several days. I have yet to do a thorough bleach-clean of the kitchen to remove all traces (so the smell is still noticeable in the cranny behind the sink), but the smell doesn’t show up in our glasses or cups anymore, and our new coffeemaker seems fine.

However, I can still smell it sometimes now when I burp. Is this stuff growing inside me? Is there something my doctor can give me to get rid of this stuff? I’m not having any major symptoms, but I wouldn’t rule out anything based on that – I have enough regular minor aches and pains and etc etc that although I’m not hypochondriac enough to really worry, it would not surprise me at all to discover some low-level chronic thing was responsible for some of these minor symptoms.

One weird observation: my wife and I were driving past an area where they were tearing up the street in the next town over, and we both could detect this very distinct smell very strongly. Whatever was causing this smell in our home, it’s in the sewer or possibly the groundwater or something in our area.

TIA for any advice on whether/what to say to my doctor, or links to resources on this.

What kind of smell was it? Dirty, musty, chemical? Is there any discoloration? Do you smell it coming out of the faucet, or only when it’s been sitting around a while? Is the smell more pronounced with warm water than cold? This is not neccesarily an indicator of a water heater problem - many odors are more noticeable at higher temps.

Did you take a sample of your water from your tap to the city? Did your water agency provice you with their annual copy of their Consumer Confidence Report? That will tell you what specific contaminants are in your drinking water, if any.

A chlorine smell is common with municipal waters, but chlorine is rather reactive. It dissipates rather than accumulates when left out, such as on your washrag. A sulfur smell is somewhat less common in municipal waters, but does leave a noticeable residue on one’s body and appliances. Sulfur is typically a taste- and odor-causing problem with water agencies, rather than a health problem.

A good resource for drinking water safety is the EPA, for more information.

Jules, California Water Distribution Operator Grade D2, among other things.

Thanks for your input, Jules.

The smell is somewhat similar to your basic musty basement smell, but lighter in tone, a very dusty-smelling musty smell, if that makes sense. Smelling it almost makes me expect to get a snootfull of dust. The dusty part of the smell reminds me more of rock dust, like in caves, more than the kind of smell you’d get on a country road or a dry field.

Definitely not sulfur or chlorine.

It was not noticeable directly out of the tap nor when the water is sitting in a freshly-cleaned glass. It was very noticeable on any surface where the tap water might sit for a while (counter, coffeemaker), but it was by far most noticeable on damp washcloths left sitting.

I’ll make sure to get a copy of the report, but the guy from the city said that the city water has had nothing significant show up, that it’s basically clean, flouridated water. They use chlorine in the processing, but, except for trace amounts, the water supply isn’t chlorinated. He also said that he’d be willing to use our house as one of the testing sites if replacing the water heater didn’t take care of the problem - maybe I’ll see if I can get it tested anyway.

Thanks again for the help.

Earthy, musty smells are actually not all that surprising. Algae in the source water typically produces such an odor. Do you know if your water agency gets its water from wells, or from a revervoir or river? Algal blooms in the source water can lead to the kinds of smells you’re reporting.

The smells typically become stronger when the water is warmer, so the stronger odor when it’s been sitting could be related to that, or you could have a mold or algae problem locally. If it’s the worst on washcloths - i.e., things that have gone through your washing machine - maybe you have a little mold going on in the washer? If so, using chlorine bleach in it may actually make things worse for a little while, as the chlorine breaks down the cell walls of the mold or algae, releasing all of the objectionable cellular contents to the water.

I would also want the agency to look into comtamination from a neighbor affecting the distribution system. In many municipalities, backflow protection is required on industrial water services but not houses (mine included.) If a neighbor has a hose running in a bucket of yuck, and a downstream fire hydrant is turned on, the resultant low pressure can pull the contents of the bucket into the distribution system piping. Then it gets delivered to another customer. The water may have been perfectly fine leaving the plant, but isn’t by the time it gets to the point of service.

Is your water main a dead-end? Have they been flushing lately, stirring up sediments in the lines? Lines should be flushed fairly often, but if they’ve sat for a few years, the initial flushing can be a little shocking.

Since you say they’re keeping a minimal chlorine residual in their distribution system, the odor problems could simply mean that they have a higher chlorine demand than they think. By all means get them to use your house as a testing station.

Since you’ve got an ongoing problem, I would suggest installing a reverse-osmosis filter on one tap to use for drinking. Those filters are great, and provide more filtration than you’d even get from most treatment plants. It won’t help your laundry issue, but at least your drinking and cooking water would smell better.

I hope your agency is taking your complaint seriously; customer complaints are often the first sign we get that something’s wrong.

Thanks again for your input, Jules. From what you say, it sounds like it might have been algae, at least if algae is something that would gunk up a water heater. I think the city gets its water from the Mississippi, but I’m not familiar with how its treated (and may not have been entirely accurate in reporting with the city’s water guy said - you know how it is when a lay person tries to relay expert information).

I’m not sure if you missed it, or if I wasn’t clear, or if I was misreading you, but the problem was resolved, for the most part, by replacing the water heater (which was about 13 years old). The washcloths no longer get that smell at all, even after several days, whereas several hours would be enough for that smell to grow in them before the water heater was replaced.

My main concern now is whether there might be continuing health problems from having ingested the contaminated water. The EPA site was somewhat useful in addressing that - and it seems unlikely that I’ve contracted anything from ingesting the water, but it looks like I’ll need to get the information as to which contaminant it was to be sure on that count.

I will definitely be following up with testing - independent testing (via the companies in the list we got from the EPA before) in our area is ridiculously expensive, so I will see about having the city take care of that. And I’ll also get that consumer confidence report, which should narrow down the list of possibilities. From those, I’ll have some idea what to ask my physician, just in case.

Thanks again for the input and the advice on the water filter.

By the way, do you, or does anyone here, have any recommendations on water-testing kits for consumer use, in case the city isn’t able to follow up after all?