U.S. News

02.22.13

L.A. Hotel Scare: How Sick Will You Get From a Corpse in Water Supply?

Discovery of a Canadian woman’s remains in a Los Angeles hotel’s water tank is raising fears of serious infection among guests, but unless the victim was poisoned with anthrax or botulism, the bacteria would not be lethal—just nauseating, says Dr. Kent Sepkowitz.

Residents at downtown Los Angeles’s not-so-tony Cecil Hotel received a bit of unwanted news this week when they were advised not to drink the water. It seems that a corpse, the remains of a Canadian woman named Elisa Lam, had been found in one of the water cisterns supplying the hotel, possibly contaminating the water supply. The water, per one British visitor, had a funny taste and color, presumably from the rotting flesh in the pipes.

130221-Sepkowitz-Corpse-Water-embed
A photocopy showing Elisa Lam, 21, of Canada is displayed at a street memorial across from Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles on Thursday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

We will leave the task of sorting out the grisly details behind the tragic death to the LAPD. But whether the water had become dangerously contaminated is a different issue. The question before us, then, is this: how quickly does a dead person decompose? And what effect, if any, does the fact that her body was found floating in water have on the rate of decomposition?

Decomposition has been well characterized—in fact there is even a word for the process (taphonomy) and a facility at the University of Tennessee, referred to as the “body farm,” devoted to the scientific study of decomposition. Forensics experts need to understand what breaks down when to accurately backdate when a murder might have occurred.

Forensics experts consider that animals decay in five major stages—a process that takes a few weeks for most of the degradation, then many more months till a body is reduced to skeletal remains. The first stage is “fresh”—the immediate aftermath of death, when oxygen is no longer supplied to the cells and anaerobic bacteria (which do not require oxygen to survive), already present in staggeringly high numbers in the digestive tract, begin to really proliferate. And by high numbers, consider this: on a normal day, there are 10 times more bacteria in and on our body than the number of cells that constitute “us,”—i.e., the human self, the ego and the id and the superego, and the accompanying package known as the body. By the numbers, we are composed of 100 trillion cells. Ten times that number means we are surrounded and occupied by a cool quadrillion bacteria, a staggering, even unimaginable, number. I mean, Christ was born, if he was born, only 64 billion seconds ago. The number of bacteria we associate with is 18,000 times larger than that.

I suspect that vomiting and a day or two of stomach misery would be the worst that would happen to the hotel guests, if that.

Anaerobes, especially in the exponential growth phase seen after a death, cause two large problems: they make that familiar forgot-to-empty-the-fridge rancid odor and also metabolize various nutrients into gas. This creates the second stage of decomposition—bloat. As its name suggests, bloat quickly becomes visible because the malodorous gas created by the anaerobes fills the abdomen and other tissues, making the corpse appear like the Michelin man. The next stage is equally sobering. Called “active decay,” this is when insects—maggots and flies and the like—begin to pick the corpse clean, and tissue that has been liquefied by putrefaction spills into the environment. The other two stages of decomposition, “advanced decay” and “remains,” can be read about here.

Given that the woman in L.A. had last been seen two to three weeks before the discovery of her body, she likely was at some stage of putrefaction, the pace of which was slowed by submersion in water. Still, it is likely that billions or even trillions of new bacteria had overtaken her body, with many spilling into the water. Furthermore, as she moved to the end of putrefaction and into active decay, the liquefied tissue likely supplied even more bacteria into the Cecil Hotel water supply. Water supplies are equipped to handle some amount of bacteria; indeed American municipal water is treated with various antibacterials, such as chlorine, to keep drinking water safe. The amount of bacteria, though, from a decaying animal would easily overwhelm the range of what routine treatment could prevent.

So we have a situation that is gross, yes. Creepy and extremely sad, oh yes. But, bacteria and all, is the water dangerous? Probably not as much as you would think.

Though humans are no match for the vulture and other carrion-picking birds that eat rancid decaying flesh every day (they have stomach acid that could fry an egg and an immune system seemingly capable of mopping up all manner of stray toxins), we are pretty well equipped to survive. We too have a stomach full of harsh hydrochloric acid (at least those of us not on antacids or proton-pump inhibitors such as Nexium or Prevacid) and can take a pretty good wallop. Furthermore, unless the woman was poisoned with anthrax or botulism or some other bacterial toxin that might be proliferating in her remains, the bacteria would not be lethal, just nauseating. I suspect that vomiting and a day or two of stomach misery would be the worst that would happen to the hotel guests, if that.

So, rather than a public-health crisis, we are left with miffed, on-a-budget tourists with a story to tell, a hotel that will likely go under from the bad publicity, and yet another grim, unexplainable death, once again of a young person drawn to the flash and eternal promise of L.A. only to find a boulevard of broken dreams—the one true Hollywood ending, one we all have seen far too many times.