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Relationships between chemical and microbial faecal source tracking markers in urban riverwater and sediments during and post-discharge of human sewage.

Abstract

This study explores the relationships between faecal source tracking (FST) markers (quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) markers and steroids), microbial indicators, the faecal ageing ratio of atypical colonies/total coliforms (AC/TC) and potential human pathogens (Giardia, Cryptosporidium and Campylobacter). Faecal source PCR markers tested were GenBac3, HumM3, HumBac (HF183-Bac708R); Bifidobacterium adolescentis, wildfowl and canine-associated markers. Sediment and water samples from the Avon River were collected during and post-discharge of untreated human sewage inputs, following a series of earthquakes, which severely damaged the Christchurch sewerage system. Significant, positive Spearman Ranks (rs) correlations were observed between human-associated qPCR markers and steroid FST markers and Escherichia coli and F-specific RNA bacteriophage (rs 0.57 to 0.84, p < 0.001) in water samples. These human source indicative FST markers demonstrated that they were also effective predictors of potentially pathogenic protozoa in water (rs 0.43–0.74, p ≤ 0.002), but correlated less well with Campylobacter. Human-associated qPCR and steroid markers showed significant, substantial agreement between the two FST methods (Cohen's kappa, 0.78, p = 0.023), suggesting that water managers could be confident in the results using either method under these contamination conditions. Low levels of fluorescent whitening agents (FWA) (mean 0.06 μg/L, range 0.01–0.40 μg/L) were observed in water throughout the study, but steroids and FWA appeared to be retained in river sediments, months after continuous sewage discharges had ceased. No relationship was observed between chemical FST markers in sediments and the overlying water, and few correlations in sediment between chemical FST markers and target microorganisms. The low values observed for the faecal ageing ratio, AC/TC in water, were significantly, negatively correlated with increasing pathogen detection. This study provides support for the use of the AC/TC ratio, and qPCR and steroid FST markers as indicators of health risks associated with the discharge of raw human sewage into a freshwater system.

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