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Higher Education
University of Houston-Clear Lake
News Release
Thursday, September 07, 2017

E. coli, other fecal bacteria in Clear Lake far above standard following flood, UHCL research finds

HOUSTON — Fecal bacteria in the Clear Lake watershed far exceed federal standards for recreational water use and are a cause for diligent monitoring, says a University of Houston-Clear Lake professor who has collected samples from Tropical Storm Harvey flooding. 

Assistant Professor of Microbiology Michael LaMontagne tested for the presence of fecal indicator bacteria, specifically Escherichia coli – E. coli for short – and other coliform bacteria produced from the feces of warm-blooded animals, including humans. E. coli bacteria were present in all the samples from six locations around Clear Lake ranging from a low of 488 to 1,733 most probable number of colony-forming units per 100 milliliters. Colony-forming units, or CFUs, estimate the number of viable bacteria cells that have the ability to multiply.

“Total coliforms exceeded, by two orders of magnitude, the threshold for acceptable levels for recreational water use set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 and were in the range of ‘huge’ numbers reported by CNN on Sept. 1 for floodwaters generated by Hurricane Harvey,” LaMontagne said in a proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation.

He added that E. coli levels also exceeded EPA levels but not to the levels reported by CNN in its Sept. 1 report.

LaMontagne intends to analyze new samples this weekend.

“This type of research is critically needed to better identify and characterize the risk of exposure to pathogens by people during floods,” said George Guillen associate professor of biology and environmental science at UHCL and executive director of the Environmental Institute of Houston.

“It is very likely that millions of citizens and responders were exposed to floodwater during evacuations and rescues. Unfortunately little is known about the health risks associated with exposure to these floodwaters in urban industrialized watersheds such as Houston,” Guillen said.

“The extent to which contact with floodwaters creates a risk of waterborne infectious disease remains poorly characterized and will depend upon the nature of the severity and extent of the flood event, potential sources of pathogens, and the timing and duration of exposure,” he added.

“Identifying the source of the contamination matters greatly in terms of the health risk – knowing whether the source of the indicated bacteria is human feces or sewage rather than from pets, livestock or wildlife,” LaMontagne said.

Guillen and LaMontagne are collaborating with Associate Professor Terry Gentry at Texas A&M University and Associate Professor the Michael Allen at the University of North Texas Health Science Center to conduct metagenomic analysis of the cultures taken from the floodwaters. Metagenomics is the genetic analyses of genomes contained within an environmental sample – important for detecting which species contributed which pathogens and ultimately, their effect on public health.

LaMontagne worked with other scientists to develop the techniques after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

“This research will help scientists, water resource managers, and public health authorities identify and quantify the potential risk from exposure to these sources of contaminants using new technology and methods of characterizing microbiological community composition. Hopefully this information will help develop better response and management efforts for future storms,” Guillen said.

“Human waste presents a particular health threat, and the perception that floodwater is contaminated with sewage could further alarm and mentally traumatize the public and limit recovery efforts,” LaMontagne said.

“These floodwaters may trigger the release of petroleum and hazardous materials that could stress receiving waters. It is important to quantify this ecological damage, as several models predict that the intensity of tropical cyclones and hurricanes, and rainfall associated with extreme weather events, will increase in the next few decades.”

At the height of the storm Aug. 29, Harris County reported that Horsepen Bayou was 3 feet over its banks. The bayou wends through several neighborhoods and the campus of UH-Clear Lake before it joins Armand Bayou, which spills into Clear Lake just west of Johnson Space Center.

Remembering Jim Guidry M3 Global Medical Missions

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