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Tracking human faecal contamination in tropical reservoirs in Puerto Rico

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Using a combination of chemical and microbiological (culture-dependent and -independent) approaches, sources of human faecal contamination were identified in two water reservoirs in Puerto Rico – Guajataca and La Plata. Fluorescence from optical brighteners (OB) – commonly found in laundry detergents – was used as an indicator of contamination from septic systems and other household discharges. Traditional indicators of faecal contamination (e.g. Escherichia coli; faecal enterococci) were enumerated, and human faecal contamination was confirmed through detection of Bifidobacterium adolescentis utilizing polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based analyses. For Guajataca Reservoir, four of 19 sampling sites (21%) were positive for the presence of B. adolescentis under baseflow conditions. The OB fluorescence data suggested that the most likely source for three of these sites was residential, whereas the source of contamination at the remaining site, although of human origin, was probably non-residential. B. adolescentis was present in 83% (19 of 23) of the sampling sites in La Plata. The La Plata sources were more difficult to identify because samples were taken under stormflow conditions, although the presence of OB fluorescence suggested a residential origin in a number of instances. OB fluorescence and traditional bacterial indicators of faecal contamination produced a number of false positive and negative findings for both reservoirs, pointing to the importance of understanding the limitations of these tools for tropical freshwater systems. The results of this study should be useful in developing a weight-of-evidence approach for the identification of potential sources and extent of human faecal contamination in similar tropical reservoirs, a necessary step in the development of management plans to reduce or eliminate these sources.
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Keywords: Bifidobacterium adolescentis; indicator bacteria; optical brighteners; tropical reservoirs

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Agronomy and Soils, University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, Mayagüez, Puerto Rico 00680, and 2: Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, GA 31520, USA

Publication date: 2008-12-01

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