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Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, is an anaerobic bacterium about which you have likely heard very much yet know very little. It may evoke thoughts of destitute people suffering in Africa or deathly plagues wiping out previously healthy communities. In truth, E. coli is a complex, widespread microorganism which resides in the digestive tract of humans and other mammals. Most strains of E. coli are quite harmless, and play an important role aiding in digestion.

Unfortunately, E. coli’s reputation isn’t entirely unfair. Individual cells can survive outside the body for a limited amount of time, and if accidentally ingested, the more insidious strains can wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims. There are three primary ways in which people become infected by E. coli: through eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or from person to person when the infected party fails to follow bathroom etiquette. In all methods, the victim comes into contact with contaminated human or animal feces.

Once contracted, E. coli will likely cause severe cramps and stomach tenderness, nausea and vomiting, and a couple other unappealing side effects I’ll spare you from reading unless you really want to. The illness typically lasts a week or so, but severe cases can lead to blood and kidney problems and eventually kidney failure or death, especially for children and the elderly.

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But wait, this can’t happen in America, can it? Minnesotans don’t have much to worry about, right? Not the case. Any water source which comes into contact with humans or other mammals could potentially be contaminated. This could be as simple as rainwater flowing past animal waste and into a drinking water reservoir before making its way to your well and eventually your dinner table.

So how do you protect yourself against these unwanted risks? More than 10% of Americans receive their water from community systems which fail certain health-based requirements. Proven disinfectants include chlorine, ozone, and ultraviolet purification by a system such as Water Doctors Trojan UV Max, which fries harmful microorganisms using concentrated doses of UV energy and leaves them unable to reproduce. For more immediate, short-term solutions, boiling water for a minute or longer is sufficient to kill the E.coli bacterium. It’s always a good idea to avoid swallowing lake or river water in those far-off summer months in which swimming is more than a pipe dream. Last but not least, please remember to wash your hands.