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Drinking 'Corpse Water' Isn't As Bad As You Might Expect

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This water doesn't look so bad (Photo by Pressmaster via Shutterstock)
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Fortunately, most of us have probably never had to think too hard about the health effects of drinking water that has come into contact with a rotting corpse. But that has all changed with the tragic—and so far unexplained—death of a Canadian tourist whose body was found in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel.Initially, when the body of 21-year-old Elisa Lam was discovered in the water tank on the roof of the hotel, public officials assured people that it was totally fine to drink the water that came out of that tank. We, as well as the hotel's guests, couldn't quite, well, stomach that explanation.

The Daily Beast has an explainer today based on forensic science that goes into why drinking what has now been morbidly named "corpse water" is actually not so bad.

Here we go: The human body decays in five stages. The first stage called "fresh" is the immediate aftermath of death when the anaerobic bacteria that are already in our body, particularly our digestive tract, begin to really proliferate. This leads to the second stage of death "bloat," which is exactly what it sounds like. These anaerobic bacteria release a lot of gas that causes a corpse to get puffy and smell really, really terrible.

The next stage is called "active decay," which is when bugs pick the corpse clean and the liquefied corpse begins to spill over into the environment. There are two stages after that—"advanced decay" and "remains"—but Lam's body was likely found at this third stage. That means that billions or trillions of bacteria had overtaken her body and— through her liquefied tissue—had spilled into the water supply of the Cecil Hotel.

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But here's the thing: both our own bodies and our water supply systems are pretty good at dealing with bacteria. Chlorine added to the water supply probably killed off a lot of the bacteria emanating from Lam's corpse. However, it likely wouldn't have killed off all of it. That's where our second line of defense comes in: our stomachs. They have harsh hydrochloric acid that as The Daily Beast says "can take a pretty good wallop."

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health did end up issuing a "do-not-drink order" while its lab analyzed the water. Their biggest concern wasn't the corpse itself, exactly, but whether there was "fecal contamination."

The Daily Beast suggests that the worst case scenario—biologically—for drinking water from the tank where a corpse is found is that you vomit and don't feel so hot for a day or two. It's like mild food poisoning—it won't kill you.

Of course, we'd prefer run-of-the-mill food poisoning any day. The worst part about drinking "corpse water" is finding out. One guest Michael Baugh, 27, told the media: "The moment we found out, we felt a bit sick to the stomach, quite literally, especially having drank the water, we're not well mentally."