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 fecal matter.
Researchers from the Institute of Hygiene and Applied Immunology at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria tested samples of holy water from 39 churches and shrines in that country. Christian churches use holy water for baptism. In addition, in Catholic churches and certain other denominations, there is a permanent font (basin) at the church entrance. Worshippers dip their fingers into the holy water, then anoint themselves by touching their faces, chests and shoulders to make the sign of the cross.
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 contain.
All holy water samples from churches and hospital chapels showed extremely high concentrations of heterotrophic plate counts (used to measure microorganisms such as bacteria, molds and yeasts in water)...frequently visited churches also showed signs of fecal contamination as well as staphylococcus and other bacteria. The likely source was worshippers' hands.
Among the waters tested were those from “holy springs,” which are literally springs in the ground from which water flows (like in the famous grotto at Lourdes). The belief that these springs have healing powers is largely a Catholic tradition, but people from all faiths sometimes drink from or bathe in these springs. (The researchers suggested that holy springs acquired their healing reputations because they actually did provide water that was cleaner than the water available in cities and towns centuries ago--but of course, that is no longer the case.) New findings: Only 14% of holy springs met the microbiological requirements for modern drinking-water regulations. Many springs were contaminated with E. coli and Campylobacter, which can cause severe diarrhea.
William Schaffner, MD, professor in the department of preventive medicine and medicine/infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville stated "if you want to anoint yourself with holy water, dip only a fingertip, then when you touch your face, touch only your forehead--your risk is minimized as long as you avoid your lips and eye area."
Wash your hands as soon as possible afterward. Also, ask your priest or church sexton how often the fonts are emptied, cleaned and disinfected--your concern may encourage increased attention to this matter. If you have an infant who is going to be baptized, make certain that the special font used for baptism will be disinfected right before the service. And never drink the water from a holy spring even if you see others doing so.
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.
Communal Communion Chalices
Most Christian denominations include the sacrament of communion, in which wine and bread are shared--and often worshippers drink from a single large cup called a chalice. When offering wine using a communal chalice, officiants generally wipe the rim with a cloth before serving the next person. This reduces the chances of spreading colds, flu, oral herpes and other viruses--but it certainly doesn't eliminate the risk. Many churches offer the option of receiving communion from tiny individual cups, Dr. Schaffner noted. If your church does not do this, speak to the minister or priest about implementing this practice.
Burning Candles and Incense
According to a study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, after candles and/or incense were burned in the usual manner in chapels and churches of various sizes, the concentration of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the air increased by a factor of four to 10. PAHs and other types of particulate matter that form when certain substances are burned have been linked to increased risk for lung cancer and other pulmonary diseases. The irritants in smoke from candles and incense also can also trigger asthma attacks in susceptible people.
Incense burns four times more particulate matter than cigarette smoke. Regular inhalation of incense smoke could increase the risk of a variety of respiratory cancers, according to a a group of studies conducting the researcher on carcinogens.
If Holy Communion is received by intinction (dipping the bread in the cup), your Priest should be sure to have only the servers touch the loaf. (The practice of individuals breaking off the bread for themselves greatly increases the risk for contamination). The priest should also instruct servers of the bread to provide pieces of bread that are large enough to be dipped into the cup without the recipient's fingers needing to touch the juice. Another problem is that some of the bread is often not able to hold itself together well enough and it crumbles, dropping or falling off (when saturated) into the cup thus risking contamination.
This hazard isn't limited to houses of worship, of course. But many churches, synagogues and mosques are located in old buildings, and old buildings frequently are contaminated by mold...and even newer buildings aren't immune. Plumbing leaks, poor insulation, large carpets that are shampooed frequently--all of these factors may turn churches and synagogues into “petri dishes” for mold. Some molds can trigger allergic reactions or asthma attacks in sensitive people...others are known to produce potent toxins and/or irritants, Dr. Schaffner noted.
This shouldn't discourage people from going to church or synagogues, as the risks of serious disease are actually quite low. However, open communication with church leaders about hygiene is a must. Ensure that the Communion stewards prepare fresh elements with clean hands. People who have any communicable illness, including colds, should not serve. Have an open discussion with church staff to find out how holy water, sacremental bread and other elements of each service are handled.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.