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Emerging Contaminants

Waterborne microbial contaminants, however, have attracted renewed attention, both within the scientific community and among the public. Once thought to be under control, they are now referred to as the "emerging drinking water contaminants." What in fact is emerging is an expanded awareness of the presence of previously undetected microbial contaminants in drinking water and their effects on human health.

Also emerging is the field of environmental microbiology, as new microbial pathogens are being discovered and research is underway to develop improved methods for detecting and treating microbials in drinking water. Microsporidia is an example of an emerging pathogen that is attracting attention. Potentially waterborne, this pathogen is recognized as causing disease among AIDS patients, although healthy persons also may be susceptible to microsporidia.

Because of its small size, microsporidia may survive filtration, and studies thus far indicate that the pathogen will be fairly resistant to many drinking water disinfectants. With more research and the development of improved detection methods, researchers will be able to better determine the occurrence of microsporidia, both in humans and the environment.

Some researchers believe this microorganism may eventually need to be monitored and controlled in drinking water supplies. H. pylori is another emerging pathogen. Common among people exposed to poor hygienic conditions from childhood, H. pylori also has been found, although much less frequently, among the socioeconomic advantaged. Its source is not known, but water is thought to be a likely route of transmission. H. pylori causes inflammation of the stomach and seems to be a factor in the development of duodenal ulcers. It also is thought to play a causal role in the chain of events leading to gastric cancer. The occurrence of H. pylori ranges from less than one percent of the population of industrialized nations to three to eight percent in developing countries. Researchers continue to study this pathogen.

These and other microbial contaminants are increasingly attracting the concern of public health authorities as well as an interdisciplinary array of experts in such fields as microbiology, engineering, epidemiology and risk assessment.

Where Do They Come From?

Waterborne diseases result from drinking fecal contaminated water. To explain the presence of microbial contaminants in drinking water is to describe a circuitous route, from a human or animal source back to a human or animal via drinking water. Microbial contaminants follow a fecal-oral route. Bacteria, viruses, and protozoa are the microorganism groups containing pathogens of primary concern in the study of waterborne disease.

Human sources account for viruses, while both animal and human waste contribute protozoa to water. For example, cattle are considered the source of much Cryptosporidium, and Giardia is often traced to beavers. Both Cryptosporidium and Giardia are protozoa. Each day the average human excretes about 38 grams of urea, mostly urine, and 20 grams of solids in feces. The excreta contains billions of microbes. These microbes cannot only survive, but also multiply in water and are made up of a wide range of organisms, including pathogenic microbes, which even healthy people excrete.

Others who have a disease or who are carriers of a disease-producing microorganism are a more obvious source of waterborne infections. Estimates indicate that about five percent of those who have contacted an enteric or intestinal disease remain life-long carriers, even after having recovered from the disease. That these intestinal microbial contaminants can infect a drinking water source may at first seem puzzling, especially to citizens of a country that prides itself on its public health standards.

Yet through natural flow or accident, various types of water can interconnect and flow together. For example, storm water runoff from residential, rural and urban areas can carry waste material from domestic pets and wildlife, to collect in surface waters and even enter groundwater. Through accident or equipment failure, sewage, a rich source of microbial contamination, might come into contact with drinking water.

Also, defective on-site wastewater disposal or septic systems in rural and other residential areas can contribute large numbers of coliforms and other bacteria to both surface water and groundwater. These contaminants occur widely and are not limited to areas inhabited by humans. A deer or other wildlife feeding by a clear-flowing, pristine stream in an untrammeled forested area is an appealing image. This hardy specimen of wildlife, however, can contribute contaminants to the stream to infect a downstream hiker enjoying a sip of spring water direct from the source. Cattle also add contaminants to water in isolated areas. Cattle graze many backcountry areas and drink from streams that then flow to other areas or into other water sources. Fecal contamination can occur in indirect and seemingly unlikely ways. Authorities suspect the contamination of Odwalla apple juice was caused when the processing plant pressed a decayed apple that had fallen to the ground and came into contact with feces, possibly from a deer. This sickened 70 people and resulted in one death.

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Related Articles:

-Common microbes and the problems they pose to water quality.
-Can genetic mutations of microbes that live in water result in new pathogens from source waters used for drinking?
-Contaminants Index Page


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