Research Links Water Quality and Health

Date released: Jul 04 2012

The EPA has published the results of significant research completed by a NUI Galway research team led by Professor Martin Cormican.  The research details new links between water quality and health.

The report, entitled Enhancing Human Health through Improved Water Quality, provides an overview of this research and includes new data on:

  • How the growing global emergency of antibiotic resistant bacteria is connected to our water.  It demonstrates how widespread the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria has become and adds to the evidence that there is a need to extend current campaigns to reduce the use of antibiotics in human and animal healthcare.  The findings of this part of the research will feature on RTE’s The Science Squad tomorrow, Thursday 5th July, at 8.30pm.
  • How DNA technology can be used to find disease-causing bacteria and viruses in water.  It demonstrates how bacterial contamination of water can be tracked back to sources such as humans or animals (e.g. cows or pigs), leading to faster corrective actions.
  • How heavy rainfall can result in sudden changes in water quality as bacterial contamination gets washed into groundwater from farm sources and septic tanks.   The research is also important for families and businesses using private wells as it shows how poorly protected wells or water treatment can have an adverse impact on their health.

Key recommendations include:

  • Reducing the use of antibiotics in human and animal healthcare.
  • Classifying water sources - to highlight those at greatest risk. 
  • Applying computer models to predict changes in water quality, so that it is possible to plan and respond.
  • Implementing total quality management systems approach to water treatment plants, as operational failure is identified as a major risk.
  • The need for proper well construction and water treatment and protection of water sources from contamination from farms, septic tanks or other sources.

Dara Lynott, EPA Director, said;
“The rainfall that renews our rivers, lakes and ground water is the foundation for good health as well as an important resource for tourism, farming and industry.  It is important to recognise and deal with the threats to water quality and health which are highlighted in this project. But it is also important to see the opportunities identified for Ireland to develop and provide tools for monitoring and addressing the challenge of protecting our water resources.”

Professor Martin Cormican, NUI Galway, lead author of the report, said;
“Water is an increasingly scarce resource in an increasingly crowded world.  We are privileged to have a lot of it and we have tended to take it for granted.  This project is part of a process of developing the science and the policies to treat water for what it is – the foundation of life and health for the people of Ireland and a tremendous sustainable natural asset in our engagement with the rest of the world.”

This research was conducted in the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway and in UCD, with partners in the HSE and local authorities.  The full report, Enhancing Human Health through Improved Water Quality, is available on the EPA website.

Further information: EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours)

Note to Editors:

The output of this project includes new information, new methods, and increased awareness. It has built a capacity for - and developed new partnerships focused on - research in environment and health.

New Information
The output of this research project is immediately relevant to understanding the impact of existing methods of sanitation, water pollution and water treatment on population health in Ireland and in developing policies to improve human health.

  1. The potential for very rapid changes in microbiological parameters (E. coli levels) in groundwater in response to heavy rainfall has important implications for ensuring safe drinking water supplies.
  2. At the time of the study some rural populations were exposed to piped water that was substantially contaminated with faeces all of the time and with the added factor of exposure to E. coli with an array of acquired antimicrobial resistance mechanisms. It is encouraging in this regard that overall improvement in drinking water quality was reported in the recent EPA report The Provision and Quality of Drinking Water in Ireland a Report for the Year 2010.
  3. The importance of source protection and the vulnerability of conventional treatment systems to operational failures were identified using a mathematical model to examine the risk of human waterborne infection with Cryptosporidium.
  4. The extent to which acquired antimicrobial resistance in E. coli and Enterococci have become disseminated in the aqueous environment in Ireland have been described and the potential role of intensive health care settings as particular foci for pharmaceutical and bacterial contaminants has been highlighted.

New Methods

  1. A matrix for classification of the vulnerability of groundwater sources to faecal contamination was developed.
  2. A mathematical model for the prediction of flow rates and E. coli levels in a river catchment was developed. The model predicts water flow rates satisfactorily but further refinement is required to improve E. coli predictions.
  3. A process for the adaptation of complex databases relating to physical and social factors from multiple sources in Ireland into a format suitable for application in a GIS was demonstrated and applied to the study of sporadic Cryptosporidium infection. This system is available for application to the study of other infections.
  4. Novel molecular markers for use in identifying the animal species responsible for faecal contamination of water were developed and their application piloted. This work has been published but the methods require further validation before routine application.
  5. Molecular assays for the detection of specific pathogens (Verocytotoxigenic E. coli and Norovirus) were developed and piloted. The methods require further validation before routine application.
  6. A novel approach to the enumeration of antimicrobial-resistant E. coli and Enterococci was validated and published.