Researchers investigate contamination risk for wells

Mar 07 2022 Posted: 05:43 GMT

DERIVE project aims to manage toxic E. coli threat to private water supplies

Researchers at NUI Galway are to carry out a large-scale project that aims to protect private well owners from infection from potentially lethal bacteria.  

The team based at the University’s Antimicrobial Resistance and Microbial Ecology Group (ARME) have been awarded funding by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop detection and risk-management models.

The DERIVE project focuses on pathogenic E. coli VTEC. The bacteria is carried naturally and harmlessly in the gut of cattle and sheep but it can cause severe gastrointestinal infection in humans. 

Ireland has the highest incidence of VTEC infection in Europe with between 700 and 900 cases a year. Most people recover fully, but in up to 10% of cases the infection can progress to the potentially fatal kidney disease Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which may lead to long-term health consequences.

The innovative research project will develop new, rapid, on-site detection methods, as well as risk models and open-source risk-management software to predict private drinking water contamination. 

Principal Investigator Dr Liam Burke said: “Ireland represents the perfect storm for groundwater contamination with VTEC, as we have a lot of livestock and unfavourable geology, with often thin layers of soil and permeable underlying rock. 

“Our frequent heavy rainfall also helps move pathogens from dung and land spread slurry, and even from our domestic wastewater treatment systems, into surface and ground waters.”

The research will be an important step for Irish authorities in implementing risk-based “source to tap” approach under the new European Drinking Water Directive.

Dr Burke added: “To protect well owners, we need to understand more about how VTEC is transported in natural water catchments. 

“We want to identify the importance of factors such as climate and geology in order to be able to predict VTEC contamination under changing conditions. It’s also important that we can detect VTEC, and part of the project is focused on the development of rapid molecular tests that can be used on site.”

The researchers will use DNA sequencing methods to characterize the VTEC found in water and compare them to VTEC causing human infection and to those found in animals and food.

The project will begin in April 2022 and involves collaboration with University College Cork (UCC), Technological University Dublin (TUD) and Teagasc. 

Once the study catchments are selected in summer 2022, the DERIVE team will engage with private well and private group scheme owners, farmers and local water groups to participate in the project. 

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