EPA Tests New Method for Determining What We're Swimming In

A major part of the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act requires EPA to conduct research to improve how the nation protects recreational waters. Toward that end, the agency is currently piloting a new way of testing water quality that yields results in as little as three hours, a significant improvement over the current 24-hour method.

Using water samples collected by the Monmouth and Ocean County Health Departments in New Jersey this summer, and partnering with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, EPA scientists are conducting special side-by-side comparisons of the two different tests used to detect disease-causing bacteria. Results of the 10-week pilot project will be published and shared with beach communities in New Jersey and New York to help refine the testing protocols and determine their effectiveness and usefulness as tools to monitor beach water quality for use by local and state authorities. The sensitivity and accuracy of the new test method will be examined and compared with results obtained from traditional methods. By producing results in as little as three hours, the new method, quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR), will present public health officials with same-day data to make decisions on public use of marine swimming and recreational areas.

EPA says it has been increasingly concerned with the public health risks of infectious diseases caused by microbial organisms in U.S. beaches. The qPCR procedure detects and counts Enterococci bacteria in water. Enterococci are commonly found in the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Enterococci themselves can cause susceptible individuals to become ill, but they also serve as a good indicator of the presence of other more harmful fecal-related bacteria that can adversely affect humans.

Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction is used to determine if a specific organism is present in a water sample. Using a device known as a thermal light cycler, this advanced scientific method is used to rapidly measure the quantity of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) present in a given sample that is unique to the organism being detected and to "copy" a cell's DNA. During the process, the device ramps up and reduces temperatures very quickly to replicate DNA. After collecting, filtering, extracting, and analyzing the samples, environmental scientists will be able to draw conclusions about the presence of a target organism and how it may affect public health. EPA believes the application of this technology will reduce disease risks and the associated costs of illness.

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