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How could coliform bacteria affect water quality?

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A number of bacteria occur naturally in freshwater streams. Some are found living in the water and sediments as photosynthetic autotrophs or a saphrophytes living on dead matter. Others exist in or on other organisms as mutual symbiotes (providing some benefit to the host organisms in exchange for a place to live), commensuals (neither helping nor harming the host), or parasites (utilizing the host in a way that causes harm). Certain bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of animals are essential for the recovery of nutrients from digested food. Millions of these naturally occurring organisms are passed out of the body with fecal wastes.

If pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms are present, they may be passed as well. When a stream is polluted by fecal material, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites may be introduced, posing a health hazard to those who come in contact with the water. Municipal and rural water supplies can transmit human diseases such as cholera (Vibrio cholerae), typhoid fever (Salmonella typhi), shigellosis (Shigella), salmonellosis (Salmonella), and gastroenteritis (Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli, Giardia lamblia). The threat of such disease transmission becomes more serious as the population density increases and more sewage pollutes public water supplies, carrying with it human intestinal pathogens. Rather than test water directly for pathogens, which can be difficult, expensive and even hazardous, researchers use indicator organisms to assess the possibility of fecal contamination. Fecal coliform bacteria, members of the family Enterobacteriacae, which include Escherichia coli , Citrobacter, Enterobacter and Klebsiella species, are often used as indicators.

These gram negative bacilli (rod shaped bacteria) are found in the digestive tracts of all warm-blooded animals. Most are not pathogenic. However, because they are eliminated with feces, they are sometimes associated with pathogens such as Vibrio cholera bacteria or a form of Hepatitus virus that is found in the digestive tract. Total coliform bacteria counts are sometimes used to test for water contamination also. These organisms are less precise as fecal contamination indicators because many can live and reproduce in soil and water, without having a human host. If high numbers of fecal coliform bacteria are found in a sample of stream water, one may conclude that there has been recent fecal contamination, although not necessarily human in origin. Other intestinal bacteria, such as streptococci or enterococci, may have a stronger correlation to human sewage, but no indicator has been identified that is exclusive to humans.

The ratio of streptococci to fecal coliform was once thought to determine human versus animal fecal contamination. But, this is no longer though to be reliable because streptococci do not persist long in an open water environment, making it difficult to assess true concentrations. Enterococcal bacteria seem to be consistently associated with human sewage and subsequent diseases, but testing for these organisms involves a lengthy and complicated procedure. Despite the fact that they can not be linked directly to contamination by human sewage, fecal coliform bacteria counts are often used to regulate surface waters for recreational use, shellfishing, and potability (ability to be safely consumed). Federal regulations stipulate maximun allowable numbers of these bacteria for various uses.

If fecal coliform counts are high (over 200 colonies per 100 ml of water sample) in the river or stream, there is a greater chance that pathogenic organisms are also present. A person swimming in such water has a greater chance of getting sick from swallowing disease-causing organisms, or from pathogens entering the body through cuts in skin, the nose, mouth, or the ears. Diseases and illnesses such as typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery, and ear infections can be contracted in waters with high fecal coliform counts.

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