Holy water is supposed to be cleansing, but a recent study found that 86 percent of water commonly used in baptisms and to wet congregants' lips was infected with bacteria found in fecal matter.

Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna tested water from 21 springs and 18 fonts in Austria and discovered that the samples contained up to 62 million bacteria per milliliter of water.

Types of bacteria included E. coli, enterococci and Campylobacter.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Water and Health, also found that all the church and hospital chapel fonts in the study contained bacteria. The busier the church or hospital, the higher the number of bacteria.

"This may represent a problem that has hitherto been underestimated, especially in hospitals, since there are a lot of people with weakened immune systems there," Dr. Alexander Kirschner, one of the study’s researchers, told ABC News.

In addition to bacteria, holy water samples also contained nitrates, which likely comes from runoff from fertilizer use. (Safe levels of nitrates are less than 10 milligrams per liter.)

Ingesting water with high levels of nitrates can cause serious illness or even death in infants under six months of age, according to the EPA. Symptoms of nitrate ingestion include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.

Only 14 percent of the holy water tested met the microbiological and chemical requirements of national drinking water regulations.

Adding salt to water can help disinfect it, but Kirschner said this isn’t a surefire way to prevent infection. He recommends that churches regularly replace holy water, and he advocates placing signs at holy springs to warn visitors that the water isn’t safe to drink.

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Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

Don't drink the holy water
Study finds that churches' holy water often contains bacteria and nitrates.