Epidemiological studies have shown that infection with H. pylori is associated with levels of sanitation, particularly water sanitation. In developed countries, less than 50 percent of the population is typically infected, while in developing countries, the infection is almost universal. In addition, the bacterium's DNA has been found in sewage-contaminated water samples in Peru where the infection rate is extremely high, leading researchers to speculate that water might be a source of infection. Initially, Baker limited her study to surface water. But upon learning a fellow employee's mother had just been diagnosed with an H. pylori infection, the study expanded.
"Her drinking water came from an untreated shallow well and she had just recently started to drink lots of water to help her lose weight," Baker explains.
Water examined from the well after a rain storm, when surface water contamination was likely, showed the presence of live H. pylori. The Penn State Harrisburg faculty member notes that "while we do not have conclusive evidence that the contaminated well water caused the woman's H. pylori infection, the possibility certainly exists."
Baker emphasizes that the research to date has been limited to untreated water sources. "More than half of Pennsylvania's residents obtain their drinking water from shallow wells which receive no disinfection. Therefore, we targeted non-municipal water supplies in our research," she says.
Since the detection method is quite labor intensive, the team's next step is to develop a quick and easy test for monitoring water for this harmful bacteria.