A few days ago around noon, rickshaw puller Abdus Salam dropped a passenger near Khamarbari intersection and stepped off his vehicle in front of a tea stall. He told the street vendor to give him a piece of bread and some tea.
While gulping the bread, the man in his late 20s asked for a glass of water. The tea seller poured some water from a jar placed on a table and handed the glass over to him. Salam drank the water believing it was filtered and safe. The vendor had the same belief.
They were probably wrong. The water was most likely to be hazardous. In fact, it might have contained fecal coliform, a bacterium found in human excreta.
A government study has revealed that almost all such jar water sold across the capital carries risky level of the bacterium, also called fecal E. coli.
The presence of E. coli indicates that other pathogenic bacteria and viruses, responsible for diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery and jaundice, may also be found in the water, health experts say.
The study found 1 to more than 1,600 MPN (most probable number) of E. coli in a 100-millilitre sample of drinking water. According to BSTI standards, it was supposed to be zero, says the paper of the study conducted by Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (Barc).
This is the first time that Barc tested the nutrition quality of bottled and jar water under a project styled “Qualitative Assessment of Bottled Drinking Water and Evaluation of Pesticides Residue at Raw, Washed and Cooked Vegetables.”
Water samples were collected from 35 branded bottled water and 250 jars manufactured by 150 brands -- BSTI certified and non-certified --from 24 points of Dhaka from April to October this year and tested at SGS Bangladesh limited, a globally-accredited inspection, verification, testing and certification company.
Nothing harmful was found in any of the samples of bottled water.
Barc collected the samples from districts, including Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Comilla, Rangpur, Pabna and Mymensingh. The water samples from the capital were taken from Farmgate, Karwan Bazar, Elephant Road, New Market, Chawkbazar, Sadarghat, Dhanmondi, Jatrabari, Motijheel, Malibagh, Mohakhali, Mohammadpur etc.
"E. coli was found in 98 percent jar water samples we collected from 24 points of the capital. Actually people are buying poison with money in the name of drinking water,” Barc Director (nutrition) Md Monirul Islam told The Daily Star.
He said such water is not properly treated and on many occasions, the jar water is produced by unauthorised companies.
The study paper also says almost all the jar water producers don't put any label -- indicating the level of minerals -- on the containers.
Health experts said consumption of E. coli-contaminated water can also cause diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases.
Ruhul Amin Miah, professor of microbiology and immunology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said, “E-coli are harmful for human body. They can infect the gastrointestinal tract of human body.
“People can face diarrhoea, stomach upset and acidity problem because of the bacteria. Those who have a weak immune system might have their blood infected with E. coli and it can turn serious," he said.
The demand for jar water is on the rise because of the growing population and proliferation of business centres, hotels and restaurants.
Taking advantage of this, a number of dishonest businessmen have installed home-based water purifying units in various parts of the city and across the country. Most of them don't have the mandatory BSTI approval.
A water producing, bottling and marketing company requires licences from the BSTI, WASA, commerce ministry, environment ministry, labour ministry and city corporations concerned to run the business.
Zulfikar Ali, proprietor of United Enterprise, said, “Companies having BSTI certificate cannot sell unsafe water. But there are many companies which are selling water without any treatment. The government should take action against them".
He also said it would not be possible for any authentic company to sell a jar of water for just Tk 20 to 30. The minimum cost would be Tk 70, which is much higher than the available price.
Mohidus Samad Khan, assistant professor of Department of Chemical Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), said, “In most of the cases, jar water is simply the water collected from WASA's pipes. In the last few years, jar water business has mushroomed in the capital and there is no monitoring of the system.
"Fecal E. coli is dangerous as it is found in toilet and dirty water. It is seriously hazardous for health."
Talking to this correspondent, Khairul Islam, country representative, UK-based WaterAid Bangladesh, said, "Water is a basic human right. However, a complete chaotic situation is prevailing regarding the jar water business. Except a few ones, all the jar water producing companies are not checking quality of the water, which is injurious to health.”
He also said BSTI should first earn the trust of the people that they are doing their work properly."…most importantly, BSTI should ensure that the jar water companies have their own mechanism to check the water quality regularly."
Contacted, SM Ishaque Ali, director of certification marks of BSTI, said they have so far issued certificates to around 300 companies to sell water in PET bottles and jars.
“We regularly monitor the quality of water after collecting samples from the market. We fine the companies and cancel their licences whenever we find low quality water,” he said.