Researchers from the University of Calgary and University of Alberta in collaboration with Alberta’s Provincial Laboratory for Public Health (ProvLab), Alberta Health Services, and FoodNet Canada will be using a “one health” lens to assess water quality and waterborne pathogens in rural Alberta. The “one health” approach recognizes that the health of people, animals, and the environment are all intrinsically linked.
When bacteria like E. coli contaminates our water supply, it can greatly affect human, animal, and environmental health. Approximately 450,000 Albertans depend on private wells (or water systems) as a source for drinking water. Twenty to 40 per cent of these water systems fall short of current drinking water quality standards, as outlined in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. Guidelines recommend that private systems should be tested two to four times per year for microbial water quality, depending on type and treatment; however, testing is voluntary. A well water survey in Alberta published in 2010 indicated that only about 60 per cent of Albertans will test their water over a five year period. Most rural residents rarely or never test their water quality despite this service being offered at no cost to the well owner.
We know that there are disease causing agents such as bacteria and viruses from human septic systems, animal waste from livestock and wildlife, and other environmental microbial contaminants that can contaminate rural ground. The factors that influence the possibility of microbes contaminating a well water supply are many and varied, but important factors include climatic conditions, local soil, and aquifer properties; well characteristics such as type, depth, condition, and age of the well; age of the septic system; manure storage; and livestock housed on property in last 12 months.
The public health authority currently looks at water quality indicators to determine if the water is safe. Currently, total coliforms (any bacteria in the coliform family) and E. coli are used as indicators of fecal contamination in a water supply. An E. coli or total coliform positive water sample is considered abnormal and is brought to the attention of the public health authority so they can discuss the results with the home owner and recommend appropriate actions such as well shock chlorination and resampling. Research has shown that drinking untreated or improperly treated groundwater can be associated with the transmission of disease causing agents. When untreated groundwater is used for irrigation, it can also be a threat to food safety especially through fruits and vegetables which might be eaten raw. Monitoring E. coli and total coliforms in drinking water based on current microbiological standards does not provide a reliable assessment of risk related to viral pathogens in the water systems. This issue has been previously identified by Health Canada (Guideline for Canadian Drinking Water Quality) and the Alberta groundwater quality assessment guideline. They also may not be good indicators for other disease causing organisms
This project, funded by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and Alberta Innovates Environment and Energy Solutions, as well as FoodNet Canada, brings together professionals from different disciplines such as economists, engineers, environmental health officers, epidemiologists, microbiologists, physicians, veterinarians, and virologists to provide a robust assessment and interpretation of different aspects of well water quality. We are collaborating at local, provincial, and national levels to understand, manage and inform risk mitigation at the animal-human-environment interface. Stakeholders will be engaged throughout the process. Our partner, FoodNet Canada, is a federal program that uses a comprehensive surveillance at sentinel sites across Canada to reduce the burden of gastrointestinal disease in people. The newest surveillance site will be located in Alberta.
This project has been developed to describe the patterns of disease causing E. coli and other bacteria, viruses, and antimicrobial resistant organisms in well water across Alberta, both seasonally and annually. We will be able to compare the traditional water quality indicators to newer monitoring methods looking directly for disease causing agents through molecular and other means. This will tell us how well the indicators work and provide evidence to support future changes to testing protocols. The study results will be applied to assess if there are associations between well water contamination and well characteristics, land use (septic systems, manure storage), environmental (climatic, geologic) and animal husbandry risk factors using our broad team’s expertise in this “one health” approach.
We will also examine livestock producers’ perceptions of water quality, water contamination, and the influence of their perceptions on the management practices they choose that prevent water contamination by animal waste. Engaging stakeholders in the process will help to provide robust evidence-based information that will be used to inform rural water users, livestock producers, decision makers, and the general public on the implications for human, animal, and environmental health. WC
Sylvia Checkley is an assistant professor in ecosystem and public health in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. She is also a program lead in environmental surveillance at the Alberta Provincial Laboratory for Public Health. This article appears in Water Canada’s March/April 2015 issue.