A gastrointestinal pathogen associated with fecal contamination was present in 97 of 129 water samples taken from four beaches on the Lake Erie coast of Ohio according to research published in the August issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
Substantial numbers of beach-goers may be sickened by this pathogen, says Jiyoung Lee of The Ohio State University, Columbus, who led the research. "We were actually quite shocked at the strength of the association between human fecal contamination and [the pathogen] Arcobacter," she adds.
There was ample precedent for the findings. In 2004, a major disease outbreak involving wastewater contamination of groundwater occurred at South Bass Island in Lake Erie, just off of the Ohio coast near Sandusky, causing 1,450 to become ill. The authors of a report on that incident stated that Arcobacter "should be considered as one of the emerging waterborne bacterial pathogens, and waters should be further monitored for this bacterium."
In the new study, Lee and collaborators found a fairly strong association between presence of Arcobacter and the number of days in which the density of E. coli, considered an indicator of fecal contamination, reached levels where a beach advisory is posted. Nonetheless, Arcobacter levels were often elevated on days when E. coli concentrations were too low to trigger beach advisories, raising concerns of contamination on some days with no beach advisories.
"HuBac was much better in our study at predicting Arcobacter densities than E. coli and it is likely that at Lake Erie beaches, human-associated fecal contamination may be more associated with pathogens than E. coli," says Lee. HuBac is a human-specific fecal contamination marker. The US EPA is revising the recreational water quality criteria, and Lee hopes these results will be taken into account.
"By reducing untreated human fecal inputs—by preventing sewage and septic system runoff—Arcobacter densities could be substantially reduced, leading to improved public health," says Lee.
Reference: Lee C, Agidi S, Marion JW and Lee J. 2012. Arcobacter in Lake Erie beach waters: an emerging gastrointestinal pathogen linked with human-associated fecal contamination. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 78:5511-5519.