Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

13 Dec 2013

Why I don’t drink bottled water

Posted by Will

I have no academic knowledge of healthcare, have never picked up a medical journal in my life, in fact have no authority besides a a patch of practical experience to advise anyone on how to take care of themselves. That’s why I call the following a theory. It is grounded on experimental, biased evidence collected from a woefully small sample. I don’t really know if what comes next has any basis past a few grubby cyclists’ reports.

waterglassYet it’s important to make the argument against drinking bottled water. That is, against the idea that we, as long-term cyclists, will be better off if we don’t drink the local tap water. Of course drinking local water is less expensive, yes we’ll be better off in that way, but I’m thinking specifically about the health implications. Are we less likely to get sick if we drink bottled water all the time?

I think the argument can be expanded, with a bit of tweaking, to cover overly stringent healthcare precautions in all respects of bicycle travel. That includes caring too much about eating potentially contaminated food, about keeping a high level of personal hygiene and about sometimes sharing items most often used individually at home (towels, bedding etc…). My theory essentially comes down to this:

* Hiding oneself away from bacteria and viruses by drinking bottled water reduces the body’s ability to adapt gradually to changes in its environment. Drinking local water actually lowers the chance of falling ill because the body gets a chance to build up resistance to new germs. *

I would sincerely love someone with medical expertise to shoot this down with contempt. Equally pleasurable would be another cyclist bounding into the fray to back me up. And so with my words and I absolved of all responsibility by the disclaimer in the first paragraph, I will now venture forward the justification for my theory.

1. Cyclists move slowly and therefore have a much greater chance of getting used to new bacteria and viruses illness-free than other travellers. Climate, the key factor in determining the kind of germs present, rarely changes over the course of a day, instead it evolves over weeks of cycling. Bacteria can be adapted to bit by bit as they gradually become less recognised by the body’s defences. Drinking the local tap water, perhaps stopping up to three times a day for refills, means regulating the flow of unfamiliar substances into the body and therefore giving the body a chance to build up a reasonable defence before the dosage becomes too strong.

p1070209-800Think about how vaccinations work. A small, weakened strand of a disease is released into the body so that our defence mechanisms have a chance to understand and fight it. That way when a more potent strand comes knocking the body has the means and know-how to repel it. In the case of cycling around the world, weaker strands of a certain harmful Indian germ can be found a long way before India, and not letting these strands in by drinking bottled water constitutes passing up the opportunity to get to know their more dangerous relations in advance.

I don’t discourage a family jetting halfway across the world from drinking bottled water because its members’ immune systems probably can’t manage such wildly different germs without getting sick. But cyclists have the chance to manage those different germs, and they waste it by drinking bottled water.

2. Drinking local water is one of the safest ways to get used to foreign micro-organisms – micro-organisms that are utterly unavoidable. This is because they are introduced to the system in small doses. Tap water, provided it is clean enough for locals to drink, is less prone to freak concentrations of harmful bacteria than the other ways germs can enter the body, for instance, during meals. Locally prepared food will occasionally contain a potent cluster of illness-inducing bacteria, an unexpected spike in bad bacteria entering the body, whereas water considered safe by the locals will not – instead it will contain slightly more harmful bacteria on average. The body is much better able to deal with a marginally higher level of bad bacteria increasing gradually over time than a sudden vicious spike every now and again.

Yes, the cyclist has to eat, and so will always be at risk from an undercooked meal, but he will be much more prepared for it if he has consumed local tap water as standard. The impact of all spikes in bad bacteria levels in the body, whether they be from food, touching something contaminated by the side of the road or having an unlucky scrape with a toilet seat, will be reduced if the body is prepared through the drinking of local water.

Of course, there are some areas where drinking tap water would be foolish, but hardly any of these are where the locals consider the water safe. Sometimes man-made borders can cause a very sudden change in water quality, most likely because pipes in one country are much cleaner than the other’s. In this case it may be prudent to alternate drinking between local water and bottled water for a few days to ease the transition. These few exceptions are no reason not to drink local water on a daily basis though.

Thankfully, I have very rarely fallen ill during my cycling around the world trip. Although I must praise the cycle gods for this luck, I think it is no coincidence that all the way I have been drinking local water, biting my nails, not washing my hands, sharing bedding and eating from unwashed bowls with unwashed utensils. When cycling long distances in unfamiliar, dirty places, it’s unwise to mollycoddle oneself too much.

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