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J Appl Microbiol. 2011 Oct;111(4):835-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2672.2011.05105.x. Epub 2011 Aug 4.

Tracking microbial transport through four onsite wastewater treatment systems to receiving waters in eastern North Carolina.

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Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Griffin Campus, The University of Georgia, Griffin, GA 30223, USA.



To examine microbial transport through properly functioning and failing onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) and its implication in surrounding water quality.


Water samples were collected from monitoring wells near leach lines of OWTS and nearby ditches and receiving surface waters to analyse for Escherichia coli and enterococci. Tracer studies with Rhodamine WT (RWT) and coliphage MS2 were also carried out to understand the fate and transport of contaminants through each OWTS. Escherichia coli and enterococci concentrations were higher around failing than properly functioning OWTS by as much as 85-fold. A storm event resulting in 9·5 cm of rainfall increased E. coli and enterococci concentrations by averages of 4·1 × 10³ and 7·9 × 10³ MPN per 100 ml, respectively, in wells close to the OWTS. MS2 persisted in the wastewater distribution boxes of the OWTS for several months and was detected in some outer perimeter wells.


Properly functioning OWTS in eastern North Carolina were effective in treating wastewater, whereas the failing OWTS affected the groundwater quality more adversely, especially after a rain storm, but had minor impact on the nearby coastal surface water.


The study is the first description of the microbial contaminant signature stemming from properly functioning and failing systems under regular use in a high-priority coastal area.

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