UT study finds viruses in East Tennessee drinking water

UT study finds viruses in East Tennessee drinking water

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KNOXVILLE (WATE) - A study by a University of Tennessee professor may have you thinking twice the next time you fill a glass of water to drink.

Larry McKay, an earth and planetary sciences professor, sampled eight water supply sources in East Tennessee and found concentrations of viruses and bacteria linked to human feces that could potentially cause waterborne disease.

The study, "Viruses and Bacteria in Karst and Fractured Rock Aquifers in East Tennessee, USA" is published in the electronic version of Ground Water.

It will also appear in a special edition of the journal, Pathogens and Fecal Indicators in Ground Water later this year.

McKay surveyed samples of raw water from eight wells or springs throughout East Tennessee.

Half the sources were considered high-risk for fecal contamination. The others were considered low-risk, based on previous data.

McKay primarily sampled wells and springs in karst aquifers, which are made of limestone, because they're commonly used as regional water sources and have a reputation for carrying bacteria.  

"Karst aquifers have long been recognized as having high susceptibility to fecal contamination because they have features, such as sinkholes and caverns, which act as pathways for rapid flow and transport of contaminants," McKay said in a press release.

The water samples were analyzed for fecal bacteria, E.coli and coliforms, Bacteroides and infectious viruses. Researchers found they all contained E.coli, coliforms, Bacteroides and infectious viruses.

One of the low-risk sources had E.coli and coliforms; half had Bacteroides; and three-quarters had infectious viruses.

All the wells and springs sampled in the study are used for public water supply, but the water is treated before it's distributed, so the contamination measured in the study doesn't represent a direct risk to consumers.

However, the results shed light on a potential health hazard for part of the Tennessee population.

"The real concern is for the numerous small non-community water systems and household wells where local residents typically drink groundwater that hasn't been filtered or disinfected," McKay said.

"It's likely that many of these residents are being exposed to waterborne fecal contamination, both bacterial and viral, but it isn't clear how big a health risk this represents. Local and regional research is needed to assess the health impacts," he added.  

McKay noted waterborne fecal contamination affects people in varying degrees. Some may have no symptoms while others may become seriously ill or even die.

McKay worked with Alice Layton, Gary Sayler and Dan Williams from the UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology on the study, which has ended.

The group is currently involved in a large, multi-university study that investigates the links between contaminated water and disease occurrence in rural villages in Bangladesh.

The researchers hope to take some of what is learned in Bangladesh and apply it to problems in Tennessee.

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