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Volume 29
Number 2
Fall-Winter 2012-2013
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Photo of a technician sampling water from a swimming area adjacent to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Credit: USGS/Meredith Nevers State of Science
New recreational water testing alternatives

By Kurt Kesteloot, Azliyati Azizan, Richard Whitman, and Meredith Nevers
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
New methodologies
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Elevated levels of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and enterococci can indicate the presence of pathogenic microorganisms, leading to health risk concerns for recreational areas along lakes, rivers, and oceans. These pathogens can cause a variety of illnesses in humans, including gastrointestinal illnesses, rashes, and eye infections. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations provide standards for FIB levels in recreational waters that guide health advisory decisions. Until they were revised in November 2012, EPA-approved methodologies for monitoring FIB were relatively slow in providing results to health officials and recreational water users, typically 18–24 hours after sampling (Brady et al. 2009). According to the USEPA (2012), there is no scientific evidence supporting beach water quality determinations based on, at best, day-old (culture-based) data. Thus, health advisories or beach closures are usually issued many hours after visitors may have been exposed to potential pathogens and have since left the area.

Photo of a technician sampling water from a swimming area adjacent to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

USGS/Meredith Nevers

A technician samples water from a swimming area adjacent to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. New analytical methods allow for near–real time test results of water quality and better protection of public health.

Since the EPA recreational water FIB limits were established in 1986, faster methods have been developed; however, until recently, they were prohibitively expensive, complicated, unproven, and pending approval for protecting public health (USEPA Office of Water 2003; USEPA 2006). The National Park Service (NPS) monitors recreational water quality according to the EPA standards and for more than a decade, along with federal and other scientists and public health officials, has raised concerns that the lag time of standard reporting methods places water recreators at unacceptable levels of risk for waterborne disease outbreaks. However, in November 2012 the EPA revised its recreation water quality testing standards, allowing park and recreation area managers to begin to incorporate some of the newer, more effective testing methods that we review in this article into their operations.

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This page updated:  22 March 2013

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