What keeps Beacon Institute’s chief research officer Dr. James Bonner up at night? Toxic microbes – dangerous bacteria that should, and could, be detected in real-time before they reach drinking water taps, one of the goals of REON. He ponders what would have happened in Toledo, Ohio, for example, were it not for a casual observation by a water plant operator.
On August 2, 2014, 500,000 residents of Toledo and the surrounding area were advised to not drink or bathe in municipal water. Tests at one Toledo treatment plant confirmed the presence of microcystin, a toxic cyanobacteria still unregulated by the US EPA.
According to the World Health Organization:
Humans are affected with a range of symptoms including skin irritation, stomach cramps, vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, fever, sore throat, headache, muscle and joint pain, blisters of the mouth and liver damage. Swimmers in water containing cyanobacterial toxins may suffer allergic reactions, such as asthma, eye irritation, rashes, and blisters around the mouth and nose.
Routine water analysis did not detect the toxin, commonly known as blue-green algae. EPA requires no such testing, despite years of internal debate. It was detected the old fashioned way. Doug Keller, operator of Toledo’s Sandusky water plant, sent out a sample for testing when he saw that his plant “had sucked up a bloom of a blue-green algae,” as the Washington Post reported it.
[E]ven under Ohio’s guidelines, Keller needed to test Sandusky’s water for cyanotoxins only on a weekly basis and only when a bloom was spotted nearby.
Sandusky doesn’t have the tools to test its own water for cyanotoxins. Detecting the toxin is not a simple process, one reason that federal regulators has been reluctant to issue national standards.
Sandusky ships its samples to other utilities. Usually Keller has someone — his lab guy, his maintenance man, whoever has a free moment — drive water samples to Elyria, Ohio, about 45 minutes away. But Elyria’s lab guy was out of town earlier last week. So samples went to the town of Oregon, just outside Toledo.
It requires little imagination to envision the ways this episode could have gone terribly wrong. Keller could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The water supply could have been subjected to widespread contamination in the middle of the night. Oregon’s “lab guy” could have been absent, as was Elyria’s.
Most water consumers would be alarmed to understand the lag between sample collection and actual analysis results for some of our more dangerous pollutants. And, in that interim, human exposure, and its dire consequences, could occur.
Pollutants at the microbial level cannot yet be detected in real-time, not even in Toledo, on the banks of Lake Erie, where HABs – Harmful Algal Blooms that produce cyanobacteria – are a regular threat. The current strategy is to predict the conditions that may lead to an algal bloom that may then lead to contamination.
The most effective solution is real-time monitoring — sensors that detect the contaminant at the intake pipe before it reaches the consumer’s tap. The technology is both near and far, both simple and complex, as Bonner describes it:
We are working on advanced sensors for real time detection, identification and quantification of specific microbial pathogens. We are at work at both ends of the spectrum: simple and inexpensive through complex and expensive — and therefore hard to operate and maintain. On the inexpensive end are imaging and particle detection systems and plant pigment detection systems for HABs Harmful Algal blooms.
But, Bonner says, current research and development funding is inadequate. Dr. Kelly Reynolds, director of the University of Arizona’s Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center, agrees that the necessary innovations are within reach but the necessary dollars are not. In an email interview she told Watermark:
Researchers have the tools to develop affordable lab-on-a-chip technologies for real-time monitoring. Conditions of highly variable water supplies create the need for extensive testing of the limitations of the method under different scenarios. Lacking is an investment in characterizing the specificity and sensitivity of these tools in changing environments and transference of the technology to the field.
In a future post: the real-time human effects of pathogens in drinking water.