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Water Res. 2011 Aug;45(14):4081-91. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2011.04.049. Epub 2011 May 10.

Detection of the human specific Bacteroides genetic marker provides evidence of widespread sewage contamination of stormwater in the urban environment.

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Great Lakes WATER Institute, UW-Milwaukee, 600 E. Greenfield Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53204, USA.


Human sewage contamination of surface waters is a major human health concern. We found urban stormwater systems that collect and convey runoff from impervious surfaces act as a conduit for sewage originating from breeches in sanitary sewer infrastructure. A total of 828 samples at 45 stormwater outfalls were collected over a four-year period and assessed by culture based methods, PCR, and quantitative PCR (qPCR) to test for traditional and alternative indicators of fecal pollution. All outfalls had the HF183 (human) Bacteroides genetic marker detected in at least one sample, suggesting sewage contamination is nearly ubiquitous in the urban environment. However, most outfalls were intermittently positive, ranging from detection in 11%-100% of the samples. Positive results did not correlate with seasonality, rainfall amounts, or days since previous rainfall. Approximately two-thirds of the outfalls had high (>5000 copy number, i.e. CN, per 100 ml) or moderate levels (1000-5000 CN per 100 ml) of the human Bacteroides genetic marker. Escherichia coli (E. coli) and enterococci levels did not correlate to human Bacteroides. A total of 66% of all outfall samples had standard fecal indicator levels above 10,000 CFU per 100 ml. A tiered assessment using this benchmark to identify high priority sites would have failed to flag 35% of the samples that had evidence of sewage contamination. In addition, high fecal indicators would have flagged 33% of samples as priority that had low or no evidence of sewage. Enteric virus levels in one outfall with high levels of the human Bacteroides genetic marker were similar to untreated wastewater, which illustrates stormwater can serve as a pathway for pathogen contamination. The major source of fecal pollution at four of five river sites that receive stormwater discharge appeared to be from sewage sources rather than non-human sources based on the ratios of human Bacteroides to total Bacteroides spp. This study shows the feasibility and benefits of employing molecular methods to test for alternative indicators of fecal pollution to identify sewage sources and potential health risks and for prioritization of remediation efforts.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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