It is a familiar scenario experienced around the world: an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness suddenly emerges in a community, and no one knows where it came from or how to stop it. At the start of the outbreak, only a few people are affected, most often the very old and the very young. As the outbreak worsens, more and more people fall ill, and people who were weak or unwell may develop life-threatening complications.
Such outbreaks sometimes originate from a source that most people in the United States and other developed countries trust unquestioningly: drinking water. However, there is much we do not know about the causes and likelihood of waterborne illness, and we can and should do more to assess the risks, according to a new report, Clean Water: What is Acceptable Microbial Risk", released by the American Academy of Microbiology.
In the developing world, where diarrheal illnesses claim roughly 2 million lives each year, access to clean water is a serious public health challenge, says Mark LeChevallier of American Water Works Service Company in Vorhees, New Jersey, one of the authors of the report. Fortunately, the United States and other developed countries have managed to rein in the biggest waterborne disease problems, but water quality is still a very real concern. Sporadic illnesses and outbreaks still occur, and they can have a serious impact on public health and commerce.
The report focuses on microbial risk assessment, a relatively new tool for addressing the problems of waterborne infectious diseases that provides a formal process for quantifying the health risks from pathogenic microorganisms.
Microbial risk assessment is an evolving field, and it requires an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach, LeChevallier explains. Much more research is needed to fill gaps in our understanding of waterborne pathogens and to determine the current rate of waterborne illness.
The report is the result of a colloquium convened by
|Contact: Peggy McNult|
American Society for Microbiology