A technique that could flag the presence of human waste in a sample of water is under development in a partnership between the Kitsap Public Health District and University of Washington’s Center for Urban Water.
As I explained in a May 29 story in the Kitsap Sun, it could be helpful for pollution investigators to know whether bacteria are coming from human waste or from animal waste.
For example, if bacterial levels are high in a stream but human waste is not present, then investigators could look for deposits of dog waste or livestock waste or else search out signs of wildlife. In that case, one could avoid testing for failing septic systems, saving a lot of time and money — not that this would occur in most investigations.
The technique under review involves testing for certain chemicals associated with humans, such as caffeine, medicines, personal care products, flame retardants, pesticides and human hormones. The current research is trying to identify which of these compounds could serve as the best routine test for human waste.
Of course, testing for fecal coliform bacteria — the old and reliable indicator of human pathogens — will remain the standard procedure for deciding whether a beach or shellfish bed should be closed.
Kitsap Public Health District developed the pollution identification and correction program for tracking bacterial pollution back to the source. For technical procedures, check out the PIC “Protocol Manual” (PDF 3.8 mb) developed last year by the health district.
More and more agencies are using the PIC process under grants from the Environmental Protection Agency. See “EPA Pathogens Grant: Pollution Identification and Correction” on the Washington State Department of Health’s website.