Study finds viruses in untreated East Tennessee drinking water

May 19, 2010
This picture shows microbiologist Trisha Johnson collecting water samples. Johnson and University of Tennessee scientist, Larry McKay, surveyed eight community water supply sources in East Tennessee and found concentrations of viruses and bacteria linked to human feces that could potentially cause waterborne disease. The findings are published in the electronic version of Ground Water. Credit: Larry McKay/ University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Do you know what is in your drinking water? A study by a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professor may have you thinking twice the next time you fill up that glass of tap water.

Larry McKay, an earth and planetary sciences professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, sampled eight community water supply sources in East Tennessee and found concentrations of viruses and bacteria linked to human feces that could potentially cause waterborne disease.

The study, "Viruses and Bacteria in Karst and Fractured Rock Aquifers in East Tennessee, USA" is published in the electronic version of Ground Water and will appear in a special edition of the journal Pathogens and Fecal Indicators in Ground Water later this year.

McKay surveyed samples of raw water from eight wells or springs throughout East Tennessee. Half of the water sources were considered high-risk for and the other were considered low-risk, based on previous data. McKay primarily sampled wells and springs in karst aquifers, which are made of limestone, because they are commonly used as water sources in the region and have a reputation for carrying bacteria.

"Karst aquifers have long been recognized as having high susceptibility to fecal contamination because they have features, such as sinkholes and caverns, which act as pathways for rapid flow and transport of contaminants," McKay said.

The water samples were analyzed for , E.coli and coliforms, Bacteroides and infectious viruses.

All of the high-risk water sources contained E.coli, coliforms, Bacteroides and infectious viruses. One of the low-risk water sources had E.coli and coliforms; half had ; and three-quarters had infectious viruses.

All of the wells and springs sampled in the study are used for public water supply, but the water is treated before being distributed, so the contamination measured in the study doesn't represent a direct risk to consumers.

However, these results shed light on a potential health hazard for part of the Tennessee population.

"The real concern is for the numerous small non-community water systems and household wells, where local residents typically drink groundwater that hasn't been filtered or disinfected," McKay said. "It's likely that many of these residents are being exposed to waterborne fecal contamination, both bacterial and viral, but it isn't clear how big a health risk this represents. Local and regional research is needed to assess the health impacts."

McKay noted waterborne fecal contamination affects people in varying degrees; some people may have no symptoms while others may become seriously ill or even die.

Explore further: NOAA establishes 'tipping points' for sea level rise related flooding

More information:

Provided by University of Tennessee at Knoxville

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Real-world proof of hand washing's effectiveness

May 05, 2010

Scientists are reporting dramatic new real-world evidence supporting the idea that hand washing can prevent the spread of water-borne disease. It appears in a new study showing a connection between fecal bacteria ...

Pointing a finger at the source of fecal bacteria

May 23, 2007

Excessive levels of fecal bacteria were to blame for almost 60 percent of Nebraska streams deemed impaired by federal and state environmental laws in 2004. In order to develop effective pollution-control strategies, ...

Bacterial persistence in streams

Aug 05, 2008

A research team from the University of Tennessee (UT) has completed a study on an East Tennessee river to determine the connection between watershed hydrology and fecal bacteria statistical time series analysis. Shesh Koirala ...

More swimmers means more pathogens in the water

Jul 02, 2007

The levels of potentially harmful waterborne microorganisms in rivers, lakes and other recreational waterways may be highest when the water is most crowded with swimmers. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School ...

Recommended for you

UN sends team to clean up Bangladesh oil spill

12 hours ago

The United Nations said Thursday it has sent a team of international experts to Bangladesh to help clean up the world's largest mangrove forest, more than a week after it was hit by a huge oil spill.

How will climate change transform agriculture?

13 hours ago

Climate change impacts will require major but very uncertain transformations of global agriculture systems by mid-century, according to new research from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Report: Radiation leak at nuclear dump was small

13 hours ago

A final report by independent researchers shows the radiation leak from the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico was small and localized.

Confucian thought and China's environmental dilemmas

17 hours ago

Conventional wisdom holds that China - the world's most populous country - is an inveterate polluter, that it puts economic goals above conservation in every instance. So China's recent moves toward an apparent ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.