Albion Monitor /News

Unsafe Water Is Global Threat

by Barbara Hyde

Safe drinking water can no longer be assumed, even in the United States and other developed countries

NEW ORLEANS -- Deficiencies in water treatment and delivery, especially those due to an aging and deteriorating infrastructure, pose serious threats to human health in developed as well as developing countries, according to a report released by the American Academy of Microbiology, "A Global Decline in the Microbiological Safety of Water: A Call for Action."

The report is based on a colloquium of 65 international experts in microbiology, engineering, epidemiology, and risk assessment that convened in Ecuador in April 1995.

"Microbiologically safe drinking water can no longer be assumed, even in the United States and other developed countries, and the situation will worsen unless measures are taken in the immediate future -- the crisis is global," says Dr. Rita Colwell, chair of the Academy Board of Governors and president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, College Park, Md. "Accurate risk analysis and public education at all levels are critical," she says.

Estimated 80 percent of infectious disease may be water related

In developing countries, treatment of water and wastes is nonexistent or grossly inadequate, and until sanitation practices are improved, eliminating waterborne disease is impossible.

However, water quality problems also plague developed countries, as witnessed by recent major outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee outbreak was the largest recorded waterborne outbreak in U.S. history, affecting 400,000 people, approximately 25 percent of the population of this city.

"We have previously underestimated the extent of disease and death caused by waterborne-pathogens," according to Dr. Timothy E. Ford, Harvard University, who chaired the colloquium steering committee. "And, governments and policymakers are not taking sufficient action to counter these threats, especially risks posed by new and resurgent diseases, climate change, surface water pollution, and development of antibiotic resistance."

Worldwide, an estimated 80 percent of infectious disease may be water related. Diarrheal diseases traceable to contaminated water kill an estimated 2 million children and cause about 900 million episodes of illness annually, the report notes.

Sanitation and water supply outstripped by population growth

Global transmission of waterborne diseases cannot be prevented -- travel and trade are too extensive. Sanitation and water supply have been further outstripped by population growth. Risk of disease must therefore be controlled at the community level by providing uncontaminated water and basic sanitation.

"Health risks posed by microbial pathogens should be given the highest priority in water treatment to protect public health," says Dr. Colwell.

Solutions are international in scale although local in application. Programs designed to reduce the incidence of waterborne disease must focus on nutritional status, sanitation, and housing, as well as water quality, the report advises.

The Academy report lists several conclusions and recommendations concerning global water quality, including:

  • The list of potentially pathogenic microorganisms transmitted by water is increasing significantly each year. Newer methods, especially molecular genetic-based methods, must be used to detect these pathogens.

  • Development, implementation, and maintenance of low-cost, low-technology water treatment systems are critical for reduction of global morbidity and mortality associated with waterborne disease.

  • Waterborne disease must be made reportable and active surveillance implemented, both nationally and internationally.

  • Improved risk assessment methodology and database development are needed for waterborne diseases.

  • Governments, non-governmental organizations, institutions, and individuals with influence to affect public opinion must be educated about the social and economic burden of waterborne diseases.

  • Policies related to waterborne disease are needed to integrate the concerns and enable implementation of water treatment in both developed and developing countries.

  • Training, education, technology transfer, and communication with the public through television, radio, and print on subjects relevant to microbiological safety of water are urgently needed.
  • The American Academy of Microbiology is an honorific leadership group within the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) whose mission is to foster and recognize scientific competence and excellence in the microbiological sciences.

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    Albion Monitor August 7, 1996 (

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