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Water Today Title November 20, 2017

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Updated 2016/6/7
First Nations Drinking Water

EMERGING THREAT!
ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANT BACTERIA FOUND
IN FLY-IN COMMUNITY'S DRINKING WATER

Antibiotic resistant bacteria, and alarming levels of fecal bacteria have been detected in a Manitoba First Nation's drinking water.

"The level of fecal bacteria, including E.coli, that we found in the drinking water was astounding," says Dr. Ayush Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Medical Microbiology at the University of Manitoba. "While there should be no colony forming units per milliliter (0 CFU/mL) in safe drinking water, we found an average of 7,000 CFU/mL in the samples we tested."

The testing was part of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant designed to improve water and sanitation security in First Nations. The NSERC CREATE H2O program is the first in Canada to combine technical water and wastewater management training with Indigenous theory, law and methodological skills training.

According to Kumar, the levels of bacteria found in the community they tested were high no matter where they took the samples; from pipes, tankers, cisterns or buckets. While the community has a treatment plant, the tests revealed that as soon as the water left the plant its levels of chlorine decreased significantly.

"What we suspect is that there are leaks in the pipes, and organic material in the bottom of the tanker truck that brings the water to residents," says Annemieke Farenhorst, the principal investigator for the $3 million NSERC CREATE H2O program.

The presence of organic matter in water pipes or holding tanks is known to weaken the chlorine's microbial fighting power and lead to the creation of Trihalomethanes (THM), which are chlorine by-products believed to be cancer-related.

While the presence of high fecal bacteria counts, including E.coli, in the community's drinking water was disturbing in itself, the revelation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria was far more alarming. The procedure, which is part of Dr. Kumar's research expertise, is not standard and is rarely performed.

"It's a very sensitive and costly procedure", he says. "It's designed to detect specific genes which are the source of the resistant bacteria. The finding were so surprising that we conducted tests on Winnipeg's drinking water to verify our method and confirm that our findings, both on the fecal and on the resistant bacteria presence, were not the result of procedural errors. The tests came back negative in all cases."

"We have to wonder if these resistant bacteria are far more widespread than we think in communities with unsafe drinking water and even more so in hospitals. This is a very worrisome emerging threat. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can lead to serious health issues including prolonged infections and even death. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently predicted that antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill more people than cancer by 2050. I think detection is a key part of the solution".

According to Dr. Farenhorst, the process for detecting resistant genes is a DNA-RNA proteobacteria test that detects bacteria you cannot look at on a plate or grow in a laboratory.

"It is a long and expensive process that requires many 'consumables' that you can only use once. Because of this, it's not a standard test within the scientific community. Yet, it is really important that we do this on a larger scale. Our findings make you wonder what else there is in the water of the 111 First Nations communities in Canada under boil water advisory. You know, I have worked in many central America countries and the water issues here in our own aboriginal communities is often worse. We are a rich country, this is a shame."

Within the framework of the NSERC CREATE H2O program, First Nations communities are invited to request researchers to come to their communities to help them manage their drinking water issues.

"We tested the water in three communities last year," says Farenhorst. "This year, we will be testing four more communities, two First Nations and two rural communities. Our objective is to determine whether the same issues are revealed in non-aboriginal rural communities. If more First Nations communities request our services, they will be added to our program, so there will be more as we go along."

The full findings of Dr. Kumar's research are being published in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.



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