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New types of technology help monitor Michigan beaches for harmful pathogens

Two individuals conduct beach monitoring in Michigan

Monitoring Michigan waters for harmful pathogens to protect beachgoers is conducted across the state by local health officials working in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). While the monitoring is voluntary and performed at the local level, EGLE awards grants to the health departments, which are obligated to report results to the state.

In 2018, Michigan became the first state to use a rapid testing method for water quality to quickly address potential public health concerns. Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) analyzes samples for genetic targets such as Escherichia coli (E. coli).

The bacteria can cause problems for swimmers including stomach cramps, nausea, fever and skin and respiratory issues. The method provides results on the same day that a sample is collected, often in under three hours. Previously, testing was done using the standard Colilert® culture method, which requires overnight incubation. After verifying qPCR results with traditional culture testing methods for E. coli, Tami L. Sivy, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry at Saginaw Valley State University, said qPCR is proving to be better at protecting human health in that it provides nearly real time determination of fecal contamination at area beaches.

Here are a few examples of how qPCR is used in beach sampling:

  • Saginaw Valley State University works with EGLE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop rapid DNA testing methods to determine the levels of fecal contamination at swimming beaches of the Saginaw Bay Watershed.
  • Bacterial monitoring of beaches on the shores of Lake Superior provides valuable data concerning the effectiveness of surface water improvement projects, especially in conjunction with beach sanitary surveys.
  • Oakland University has partnered with the Macomb County Health Department, St. Clair County Health Department, the U.S. EPA and EGLE to develop rapid recreational water quality tests.

Joining qPCR now is a newer technology called digital droplet PCR (ddPCR). It is also being used to test beach water samples to detect genetic markers indicative of specific sources of fecal contamination. This molecular source tracking relies on genetic markers found in a bacterium called bacteroides and can differentiate between various sources, whether human or animal. As labs around the state become more familiar with using ddPCR to test water samples, it will become an even more valuable tool for protecting public health and allowing for safe recreation.

Learn more about beach closings in EGLE's one-minute MI EnviroMinute video. Check for beach closings before swimming on the Michigan BeachGuard webpage, and view annual beach monitoring reports on the EGLE beach monitoring webpage.

Photo caption: Two individuals conduct water monitoring in Michigan.

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