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Sewage loading and microbial risk in urban waters of the Great Lakes

November 30, 2018

Despite modern sewer system infrastructure, the release of sewage from deteriorating pipes and sewer overflows is a major water pollution problem in US cities, particularly in coastal watersheds that are highly developed with large human populations. We quantified fecal pollution sources and loads entering Lake Michigan from a large watershed of mixed land use using host-associated indicators. Wastewater treatment plant influent had stable concentrations of human Bacteroides and human Lachnospiraceae with geometric mean concentrations of 2.77 × 10and 5.94 × 10copy number (by quantitative PCR) per 100 ml, respectively. Human-associated indicator levels were four orders of magnitude higher than norovirus concentrations, suggesting that these human-associated bacteria could be sensitive indicators of pathogen risk. Norovirus concentrations in these same samples were used in calculations for quantitative microbial risk assessment. Assuming a typical recreational exposure to untreated sewage in water, concentrations of 7,800 copy number of human Bacteroides per 100 mL or 14,000 copy number of human Lachnospiraceae per 100 mL corresponded to an illness risk of 0.03. These levels were exceeded in estuarine waters during storm events with greater than 5 cm of rainfall. Following overflows from combined sewer systems (which must accommodate both sewage and stormwater), concentrations were 10-fold higher than under rainfall conditions. Automated high frequency sampling allowed for loads of human-associated markers to be determined, which could then be related back to equivalent volumes of untreated sewage that were released. Evidence of sewage contamination decreased as ruminant-associated indicators increased approximately one day post-storm, demonstrating the delayed impact of upstream agricultural sources on the estuary. These results demonstrate that urban areas are a diffuse source of sewage contamination to urban waters and that storm-driven release of sewage, particularly when sewage overflows occur, creates a serious though transient human health risk.

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