E. coli – you hear about it in the news, usually in stories involving contamination of some type. It’s bad news and makes people sick. But what, exactly, is E. Coli?
E. coli is a bacterium that lives in the intestines of humans and some other animals. The full name of the bacterium is Escherichia coli, and the average amount you excrete with feces every day averages between 100 billion and 10 trillion. In the sewage treatment industry, the amount of E. coli in water serves as an indicator for how polluted the water is—it indicates how much human feces is in the water. Basically, where there’s E. coli, there’s poo.
E. coli is generally harmless to humans when it’s in the gut—it actually helps with digestion and gives us much-needed vitamins, like K and B-complex. The fetus of any animal is basically sterile, but as soon as an animal is born, it starts to acquire millions of types of bacteria that help it survive. These bacteria help us digest food and perform other essential tasks—and in truth, without bacteria in our bodies, we wouldn’t live very long.
However, these bacteria are found only in areas of the body that come into direct contact with the outside world: the mouth, the intestinal tract, etc. If E. coli gets into the wrong areas of the human body, it can cause infections including urinary tract infections, pneumonia, peritonitis, and septicemia. These diseases can be treated using antibiotics.
As you make your way through the world, you are in constant danger of ingesting E. coli from the guts of other animals. They are found anywhere animals are found, so anytime you eat, drink, or touch something that has been near animals, you take the chance of picking up E. coli. Luckily, the usual strain of E. coli found in your gut is not dangerous when ingested; your stomach acids can kill it before it does any harm.
However, there are more virulent strains of E. coli that can also cause sickness by producing toxic chemicals. These include the bacteria that cause food poisoning. It can be in meat, plants, or even drinks—there was a case in Canada where some contaminated unpasteurized apple juice killed a sixteen-month-old. Toxic E. coli bacteria can be fatal in children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, but for most of us, the worst it does is cause horrible vomiting and diarrhea.
You may have also heard of E. coli when news of an outbreak in spinach crops came in October of 2006. This strain was more virulent than others, and it caused bloody stool, severe vomiting, and other unpleasant reactions. The outbreak was traced to pre-washed spinach served at the Sequoias Portola Valley retirement home in California. It spread to 22 other states and sickened 146 people, one of which died and 76 of which were hospitalized, many with kidney failure.
Nobody is yet sure why there was E. coli in packaged spinach. But similar outbreaks in previous years have been caused by flooding. During flood seasons, sewage treatment plants often overflow, dumping thousands of gallons of untreated sewage into waterways. When the floodwaters reach farmers’ fields, it can contaminate the plants with that sewage. In this instance, scientists believe that the contamination could also have been caused by grazing deer or by fecal matter from nearby cattle in the water used for irrigation.
E. coli is also often found in meat. It usually gets into meat while it’s being processed at the plant, as a result of an animal’s colon being punctured during the slaughter process. In general, E. coli is found only at the surface of a cut of steak—the inside should be sterile. This all changes, of course, if there’s a cut in the meat. Hamburger is particularly risky for E. coli contamination, because the surface has been mixed up with the inside during the grinding process. Cooking the meat all the way through effectively kills the bacteria, which is why you’re encouraged to cook your meat well-done to prevent food poisoning—and generally speaking, it’s safer to eat a rare steak than it is to eat a rare hamburger.
E. coli is found everywhere in our environment—and even inside our bodies. Most of the time, we live peacefully with this bacteria—we don’t even know it’s there. However, when E. coli goes bad, we know it. In general, it’s important to wash your hands frequently, be careful when handling meats that could be contaminated, and cook your food all the way through. This may not protect us from every bacterium out there—but it’s a good start.