Moctezuma's Revenge

Who was Moctezuma?  To most foreigners, Moctezuma is just some Aztec emperor with the dubious distinction of having the diarrhea that tourists in Mexico sometimes get from drinking the local water named after him ("Moctezuma's revenge", aka La Venganza de Moctezuma).  When it happens to the unlucky ones, the presence is unmistakable.  The technical definition is the passage of at least three unformed stools in a 24-hour period together with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fecal urgency or the passage of blood or mucous.  The disease usually lasts 3 to 5 days and is caused by exposure to virus and bacteria to which our bodies are unaccustomed, the principal agent being Escherichia coli (E. coli).

US President Jimmy Carter caused a diplomatic row when he inopportunely mentioned Moctezuma's Revenge upon meeting Mexican President José López Portillo.  Although there is the belief that these kinds of attacks only happen to first-world travelers in third-world countries, the reverse also happens to third-world travelers in first-world countries.  There, the traveler's diarrhea is known as "The Empire Strikes Back" (El Imperio Contra Ataca).  There are different forms of E. coli around the world, and it takes some getting used to before being immunized to specific local strains.

The myth is that Moctezuma's Revenge results from drinking the local water.  The reality is that E. Coli can enter through foods such as salads, fruits, juices, ceviches, and so on.  But nevertheless  the myth persists with the dictum: "Dont drink the water!"  Capitalising on the health consciousness, this has led to the growth of the bottled water industry who serve foreigners and locals.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Mexico study.  This is a survey of 10,316 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old who were interviewed in 2002.  Within this survey, fully 59% of the survey respondents said that they drank natural/unflavored bottled water in the last 7 days.  The bottled water industry in Mexico generates sales of 65 billion pesos [US$6.56 billion] per year, which makes the country the second largest market in the world for the product, after the United States.

The next two charts show the incidence of consumption by socio-economic class and age/sex groups.  Since bottled water represents a premium price, the incidence falls off slightly within the lower socio-economic classes.  Male teenagers are less likely to drink bottled water than other groups; otherwise, the oldest people are also less likely.  

(source: TGI Mexico)

(source: TGI Mexico)

But before people get too rosy about the health benefits of bottled water, they should perhaps look more carefully:

Yet in contrast to the market image of "pure spring water" that is projected by the industry, bottled water is not always safer than tap water and in some instances it is less so. That was the conclusion of a March 1999 study by the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) which found that one-third of the 103 brands of bottled water it studied contained levels of contamination, including traces of arsenic and E. coli. One-quarter of all bottled water is actually taken from the tap, though it is further processed and purified to some degree, said the NRDC study, and in many countries, bottled water itself is subject to less rigorous testing and lower purity standards than tap water. 'One brand of 'spring water," reported the NRDC ... actually came from a well in an industrial facility's parking lot, near a hazardous waste dump, and periodically was contaminated with industrial chemicals at levels above FDA standards." In addition, the marketing hype about bottled water being more environmentally friendly and healthier than tap water is also misleading. In terms of nutritional value, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), bottled water is no better than tap water. The idea that bottled "spring" or "natural" water contains near-magical qualities and great nutritive value is "false," declares a 1997 FAO study on "Human Nutrition in the Developing World." "Bottled water may contain small amounts of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and fluoride, but so does tap-water from many municipal water supplies." The FAO report also cites a study "comparing popular brands of bottled water [which] showed that they were in no way superior to New York tap-water." And as far as environmental responsibility is concerned, a study released by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) in May 2001 shows that the bottled water industry uses 1.5 million tons of plastic every year, and when plastic bottles are being manufactured or disposed of, they release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Furthermore, since a quarter of all bottled water produced is for export markets and transportation fuel results in carbon dioxide emissions, the WWF report contends that the transportation of bottled water is a contributing factor to the problem of global warming. (

(posted by Roland Soong, 8//18/2003)

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