CU-Boulder logoThe frequency of taking daily bathroom showers certainly aggravates our personal hygiene but much to our surprise it may also bring hazards to our health. According to a new study from experts at the University of Colorado at Boulder, showering everyday can deliver a face full of potentially pathogenic bacteria.

For providing more evidence to the study, the experts used highly progressive instruments along with lab methods for analyzing nearly 50 showerheads from nine cities in seven states including New York City, Chicago and Denver. They reached a conclusion that approximately 30 percent of the devices revealed significant levels of Mycobacterium avium, a pathogen linked to pulmonary disease.

The pathogen is believed to adversely affect people with weak immune systems but can also occasionally infect healthy people, explained CU-Boulder Distinguished Professor Norman Pace, lead study author. It’s quite obvious to find pathogens in municipal waters, commented Pace. But the CU-Boulder scientists discovered that some M. avium and associated pathogens were grouped together in slimy ‘biofilms’ which were attached to the inside of showerheads at more than 100 times the ‘background’ levels of municipal waters.

“If you are getting a face full of water when you first turn your shower on, that means you are probably getting a particularly high load of Mycobacterium avium, which may not be too healthy,” he continued.

Analysis at National Jewish Hospital in Denver reveals that pulmonary infections’ elevated levels in the United States in recent decades from so-called ‘non-tuberculosis’ mycobacteria species such as M. avium may be connected to people taking more showers and fewer baths, shared Pace. Water spurting from showerheads can distribute pathogen-filled droplets that suspend themselves in the air and can easily be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs.

The symptoms of pulmonary disease include weariness, continual dry cough, breath shortness, feebleness and generally feeling bad. People with debilitated immune systems such as pregnant women, the elderly with people suffering some other diseases are more likely to experience such symptoms, reveal the experts.

Pace further states, that although scientists have attempted cell culturing in order to examine for showerhead pathogens, the technique proved to be incapable for identifying 99.9 percent of bacteria species existing in any given environment. A molecular genetics technique established by Pace in the 1990s enabled experts to swab samples straight from the showerheads, seclude DNA, aggrandize it by utilizing the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, and determine the sequences of genes present for recognizing particular pathogen types.

“There have been some precedents for concern regarding pathogens and showerheads,” stated Pace. “But until this study we did not know just how much concern.”

Moreover, the CU team examined showerheads from smaller towns and cities during the initial stages of the study. Many of these towns and cities were found using well water rather than municipal water.

“We were starting to conclude that pathogen levels we detected in the showerheads were pretty boring,” stated Feazel, first author on the study. “Then we worked up the New York data and saw a lot of M. avium. It completely reinvigorated the study.”

On the other hand, adding more to the showerhead swabbing technique, Feazel took numerous individual showerheads, broke them into tiny pieces, coated them with gold, used a fluorescent dye to stain the surfaces and used a scanning electron microscope in order to view the surfaces with detail.

“Once we started analyzing the big metropolitan data, it suddenly became a huge story to us,” stated Feazel, who started working in Pace’s lab as an undergraduate.

In Denver, one showerhead in the research integrated with high loads of the pathogen Mycobacterium gordonae was cleaned with a bleach solution for eradicating it. Tests on the showerhead several months later displayed the bleach treatment ironically resulted in a three-fold increase in M. gordonae, specifying a general renitence of mycobacteria species to chlorine.

So shall we assume that it is hazardous to take showers?

“Probably not, if your immune system is not compromised in some way,” said Pace. “But it’s like anything else — there is a risk associated with it.” Pace said since plastic showerheads appear to “load up” with more pathogen-enriched biofilms, metal showerheads may be a good alternative.

“There are lessons to be learned here in terms of how we handle and monitor water,” expressed Pace. “Water monitoring in this country is frankly archaic. The tools now exist to monitor it far more accurately and far less expensively that what is routinely being done today.”

Earlier researches by Pace and his group identified enormous enrichments of M. avium in ‘soap scum’ normally discovered on vinyl shower curtains and floating above the water surface of warm therapy pools. A 2006 therapy pool research conducted by Pace and CU-Boulder Professor Mark Hernandez revealed high levels of M. avium in the indoor pool environment were linked to a pneumonia-like pulmonary condition in pool attendants known as ‘lifeguard lung’, leading the CU team into the showerhead study, explained Pace.

The study was published in the Sept online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.