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Preferential Transport of Cryptosporidium parvum Oocysts in Variably Saturated Subsurface Environments

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When oocysts of the protozoan Cryptosporidium parvum contaminate drinking water supplies, they can cause outbreaks of Cryptosporidiosis, a common waterborne disease. Of the different pathways by which oocysts can wind up in drinking water, one has received little attention to date; that is, because soils are often considered to be perfect filters, the transport of oocysts through the subsoil to groundwater is generally ignored. To evaluate the significance of this pathway, a series of laboratory experiments investigated subsurface transport of oocysts. Experiment 1 was carried out in a vertical 18-cm-long column filled either with glass beads or silica sand, under conditions known to foster fingered flow. Experiment 2 involved undisturbed, macroporous soil columns subjected to macropore flow. Experiment 3 aimed to study the lateral flow on an undisturbed soil block. The columns and soil samples were subjected to artificial rainfall and were allowed to reach steady state. At that point, feces of contaminated calves were applied at the surface along with a known amount of potassium chloride to serve as a tracer, and rainfall was continued at the same rate. The breakthrough of oocysts and chloride, monitored in the effluent, demonstrate the importance of preferential flow on the transport of oocysts. Compared with chloride, peak oocyst concentrations were not appreciably delayed and, in some cases, occurred even before the chloride peak. Recovery rates for oocysts were low, ranging from 0.1 to 10.4% of the oocysts originally applied on the columns. However, the numbers of oocysts present in the effluents were still orders of magnitude higher than 10 oocysts, the infectious dose considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, to be sufficient to cause Cryptosporidiosis in healthy adults. These results suggest that the transport of oocysts in the subsurface via preferential flow may create a significant risk of groundwater contamination in some situations.


Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2003

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  • Water Environment Research® (WER®) publishes peer-reviewed research papers, research notes, state-of-the-art and critical reviews on original, fundamental and applied research in all scientific and technical areas related to water quality, pollution control, and management. An annual Literature Review provides a review of published books and articles on water quality topics from the previous year.

    Published as: Sewage Works Journal, 1928 - 1949; Sewage and Industrial Wastes, 1950 - 1959; Journal Water Pollution Control Federation, 1959 - Oct 1989; Research Journal Water Pollution Control Federation, Nov 1989 - 1991; Water Environment Research, 1992 - present.
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