What risks do intestinal pathogens pose to users of aquatic systems?

In a project coordinated by the Lammi Biological Station, answers to this question are sought with new forms of gene technology.

New techniques based on gene technology can be used to identify with increasing accuracy the emission sources from which intestinal pathogens originate and what kind of risk they pose to users of aquatic systems.

Help from biochar, LEDs and wetlands

A central part of the study entails investigating how to reduce the waterborne infection risk to which users of aquatic systems are exposed.

 “Among the solutions under trial are biochar, LED technology that utilises UV radiation and wetlands,” says project coordinator Josefiina Ruponen from the University of Helsinki’s Lammi Biological Station.

“Wetlands built in connection with wastewater treatment plants and UV technology can be used to prevent bacteria and viruses from getting into waterways. UV technology that kills pathogens can also be used to ensure the cleanliness of water used to irrigate vegetable gardens. The project is also testing the efficacy of a filtration field that contains biochar in eliminating gut microbes from water flowing from horse pastures,” Ruponen explains.

Intestinal infections rarely transmitted by water

In Finland, the risk of getting an intestinal infection as result of water reclamation and the recreational use of water is relatively low. Typically, less than 10 instances of water-related epidemics spread by contaminated domestic water are identified in the country each year. However, more details are needed on the spreading, durability and origin of harmful bacteria and viruses, as well as on the environmental factors affecting them.

In spite of effective elimination measures employed in wastewater treatment plants, intestinal pathogens end up in aquatic environments. Exceptional circumstances in particular, such as rainstorms and pipe leaks, increase emission risk. Rain and meltwater in inhabited areas are another potential source of contamination, as they often contain dog and bird excrement. In addition, bacteria and viruses find their way into waterways through the practice of spreading manure on animal farms and in runoffs from pastures and exercise yards. 

The ‘Häme region as a pioneer in a risk management of pathogens in watercourses’ project is investigating the emission sources and transfer of harmful bacteria and viruses in the Kanta-Häme region. The project surveys the contamination risks of domestic, bathing and irrigation water, as well as looks for means to manage the risks. Funded by the Regional Council of Häme, the project was initiated with the support of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The principal operator of the project is the Lammi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki. Other contributors include the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the Häme University of Applied Sciences and Natural Resources Institute Finland. The project is active from 1 August 2019 to 31 May 2021.

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Josefiina Ruponen

Project coordinator