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Not so pure after all: Most holy water 'is contaminated with faecal matter' and could be harmful to health

  • 86% of holy water contains faecal matter and in every millilitre of holy water there are up to 62 million bacteria

  • Holy springs contain nitrates from agriculture which make them unsafe

  • They got their healing reputation at a time when water in cities was dangerously contaminated meaning people were frequently unwell

Many people believe that holy water has healing properties but new research suggests it may actually do more harm than good.

Scientists have discovered that 86 per cent of water samples from holy sources contain faecal matter.

Austrian researchers also found that church fonts contain high levels of bacteria and that none of the holy springs they studied could be considered safe for drinking from.

The researchers, from the Institute of Hygiene and Applied Immunology at the Medical University of Vienna, analysed the water in 21 holy springs in Austria, and in 18 fonts in Vienna, at various times during the year.

They found that in every millilitre of holy water there were up to 62 million bacteria.

They also found that the busier the church, the more bacteria it tended to have in its font.

The study also revealed that holy springs contain not only faecal contamination with E coli bacteria and enterococci, but also Campylobacter, which can cause inflammatory diarrhoea. 

Many of the springs were also contaminated with nitrates from agriculture making the water unsafe for drinking. 

‘We need to warn people against drinking from these sources,’ said Dr Alexander Kirschner, a microbiologist from the Medical University of Vienna. 

He recommends that the responsible authorities and priests put up warning signs by the holy springs. 

Dr Kirschner said that the springs got their healing reputation in the Middle Ages and that things have changed since then.

He explained: ‘In those days, the quality of the water in towns and cities was generally so poor that people were constantly developing diarrhoea or other diseases as a result. 

‘If they then came across a protected spring in the forest that was not as polluted and drank from it for several days, their symptoms would disappear. 

‘So although in those days they were drinking healthier water, given the excellent quality of our drinking water today, the situation is now completely reversed.’

Based on the study’s findings, Dr Kirschner recommends that salt could be added to holy water in fonts to reduce the chance of bacteria thriving, he also suggests that holy water in churches should be changed regularly.

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Holy Water May be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds



Sept. 14, 2013

Despite its purported cleansing properties, holy water could actually be more harmful than healing, according to a new Austrian study on "holy" springs.

Researchers at the Institute of Hygiene and Applied Immunology at the Medical University of Vienna tested water from 21 springs in Austria and 18 fonts in Vienna and found samples contained up to 62 million bacteria per milliliter of water, none of it safe to drink.

Tests indicated 86 percent of the holy water, commonly used in baptism ceremonies and to wet congregants' lips, was infected with common bacteria found in fecal matter such as E. coli, enterococci and Campylobacter, which can lead to diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever.

Nitrates, commonly found in fertilizer from farms, were also identified in the water. If ingested, water containing nitrates over the maximum contaminant level could cause serious illness, especially in infants younger than 6 months, which could lead to death if untreated, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We need to warn people against drinking from these sources," said Dr Alexander Kirschner, study researcher and microbiologist at the Medical University of Vienna.

The study, published in the Journal of Water and Health, also found that all church and hospital chapel fonts contained bacteria -- the busier the church, the higher the bacterial count.

"This may represent a problem that has hitherto been underestimated, especially in hospitals, since there a lot of people with weakened immune systems there," Kirschner said.

There have been advances made for the more hygienic use of holy water, including the invention of a holy water dispenser a few years ago by an Italian priest, while studies have also indicated that adding salt (at recommended levels of 20 percent) can help disinfect the water.

But Kirschner cautions that salt is not a reliable way to prevent infection and instead recommends priests regularly change the holy water in churches and erect signs to inform congregants about the dangers as well as of the history of the holy springs.


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