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J Appl Microbiol. 2005;98(4):910-20.

Evidence of septic system failure determined by a bacterial biochemical fingerprinting method.

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Faculty of Science, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore DC 4558, Qld, Australia.



To provide evidence of septic system failure by comparing two faecal indicator bacteria, enterococci and Escherichia coli, from defective septic tanks and adjacent creeks.


A biochemical fingerprinting method was used to type and compare enterococci and E. coli strains from 39 septic tanks with creek water samples. Phenotypic diversity of enterococci (0.5 +/- 0.3) and E. coli (0.5 +/- 0.3) in septic tanks were significantly lower than those found in water samples (0.8 +/- 0.1, P < 0.0001 for enterococci and 0.9 +/- 0.1, P < 0.0001 for E. coli). Among 1072 enterococci isolates tested from septic tanks, 203 biochemical phenotypes (BPTs) were found of which 98 BPTs from 33 septic tanks were identical to several water samples. Similarly, among 621 E. coli isolates tested from septic tanks, 159 BPTs were found of which 53 BPTs from 26 septic tanks were also identical to water samples. The number of the latter bacteria was significantly (P = 0.01) higher in water samples collected from downstream compared with that of upstream in the study area. A high similarity between the populations of both indicator bacteria was also found between defective septic tanks and downstream water samples further indicating the contamination of both creeks by defective septic systems.


Biochemical fingerprinting of faecal indicator bacteria is a useful and rapid method to provide direct evidence for septic system failure. Combination of both faecal indicator bacteria (enterococci and E. coli) provides a better judgement of the performance of a septic system.


This study is the first to provide direct evidence of septic system failure by identifying the presence of specific bacterial types in septic tanks and surface waters. Based on our findings, we suggest that the performance evaluation of a septic system should be accompanied by direct analysis of faecal indicator bacteria.

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