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Water Today Title November 25, 2017

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Updated 9/25/13

Holy Water Laced with fecal matter

In a story requoted around the world, Austrian scientists report that 86% of the water samples they analysed from 21 'holy' springs and 18 fonts in churches and chapels in Austria showed fecal contamination. Their study further revealed that none of the springs could be recommended as a source of drinking water. The springs held not only fecal contamination but many also had agricultural nitrates and bugs that can cause inflammatory diarrhea.

In an email exchange, microbiologist Alexander Kirschner answered our questions.

Water Today - What prompted you to do this research on holy water?

Kirschner - It was a kind of “involuntary self-experiment”. My mother persuaded me to taste a glass of water from a “holy spring” that she had collected together with her friends. From this glass I got an intestinal infection a few hours later. this prompted me to do some research on the topic and I found that there was not a single international publication in a scientific journal that ever has investigated the microbiological and chemical quality of “holy” spring water. I only found a few reports on holy water fonts in churches and thus included holy water in churches and hospital chapels into the research.

Water Today - You tested 21 springs and found them contaminated. There is a widespread belief that spring water is pure even if it is not holy. Do you think this is part of the problem?

Kirschner - It is true that (at least in my country) many people use water from their own wells for drinking water purposes instead of municipal water, mostly because of saving money, but also because they think it is better (taste, for health) and safe. Due to the fact that there are practically no epidemiological studies on water-associated diseases in developed countries (i.e. testing the infection rate of people drinking their own water in comparison to a control group that uses municipal water in the same region), we do not know how much burden of disease is due to the use of private water sources. Thus this topic is not addressed and thus people think their water is safe.

But with “holy water” there is for sure the additional belief that a “holy” water must be safe, because it is “blessed” by god.

Moreover, there is a lot of tradition around “holy” spring water. In the Middle Ages, people were living in municipalities where sanitation was inappropriate and access to safe water was practically not available. People were living with water-associated infectious diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, etc. In those days (and up to the end of the 19th century), people that made a pilgrimage to a church/holy place, remote from urban settlements and intensive agriculture, and drank water from a “holy” well there, experienced spontaneous recovery from their diseases and attributed it to a “divine miracle”. There was no knowledge on microorganisms and infection routes.

Water Today - You also found 18 fonts in churches contaminated. How do you explain this finding? Would the water in fonts not come from the same municipal water in those locations?

Kirschner - The reason for the extremely high bacterial contamination in holy water fonts is merely by the frequent dipping of fingers/hands into the water. We found a clear relationship between the concentration of heterotrophic plate counts, the number of faecal indicators (and with this the probability of the presence of pathogens) and the number of visitors of the church.

It is true that municipal water is the basis for the holy water, but the water quality depends on how frequently the water is renewed and how frequently visitors have put their hands into it. Besides, holy water is – according to catholic rules – only produced (blessed) once a year (in the Easter-night) and is then stored in a container for the rest of the year. Varying amounts of salts are also added as it is known that high salinities hamper bacterial growth. But – if the water in the storage container (which itself can be a cause of contamination) gets nearly empty, which might occur early in frequently visited churches – the priest is allowed to dilute the rest of the “holy“ water with municipal water. This leads to a decrease in salinity and the water loses its bacteriostatic effect.

Water Today - Water in the River Jordan and, the Ganges which are also considered holy are also heavily contaminated. In Russia 117 were sent to hospital after drinking holy water from a well near a Church. And holy bottled water Zam Zam from Mecca was also found to be contaminated. How would you explain this phenomenon. Would you say that the spiritual belief overcomes any fear that the water might not be pure? Or that treating holy water is feared to reduce its power?

Kirschner - Yes, I think that many people still believe – despite a few hundred years of “Enlightenment” (I hope that I use the correct noun here), and despite scientific progress – that god is stronger than pure biological reality. (There are even people who believe that a space-ship will bring them to paradise when they are collectively committing suicide).

In addition, many people may simply rely on their confidence that when a “holy water” is publicly accessible and officially “holy” (i.e. not forbidden by the government), this water is safe. Maybe they also start from the premise that these waters are controlled by authorities and they are official drinking water sources.

Water Today - Do you have any other comment about your research you would like to add?

Kirschner - In a first step, I think that the public should be informed about the (unrecognized) problem. Second, solutions for safe use of both holy springs and holy water in fonts should be developed. This is possible and should include health authorities and the church. Solutions are for sure available!

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