Pathogens & Disease

In recent years, various research and authoritative studies have been sounding alarm bells about the deteriorating safety of our water as it relates to our health and well being. The World Health Organization warns that “the spectrum of (water–related) disease is expanding and the incidence of many water-related microbial diseases is increasing.” The International Joint Commission that monitors the health of the Great Lakes expresses concern “about microbial pollution in the Great Lakes basin” and warns that “residents of the Great Lakes basin face serious, largely unacknowledged threats from an everyday substance we all tend to assume is safe – the water we depend on for recreation and drinking.” Dr. David Ozonoff of Boston University School of Public Health warns that “The risk of disease associated with public drinking water has passed from the theoretical to the real.”

The research of evolutionary biologists such as Dr. Paul Ewald concludes that “we have consistently failed to fully understand the role that pathogens play in causing disease.” Dr. Ewald’s concern is not so much with the more visible outbreaks of acute illness but more importantly with “the role of pathogens in causing chronic disease.” Again, the International Joint Commission writes: “Even when waterborne illness occurs, detecting it can be difficult. As a result, instances of disease caused by pathogens in water are probably under-reported to public health officials.” Dr. Ewald explains that “in many cases, it’s hard to link a pathogen to a disease because the pathogen grows and spreads so gradually.”

The nature of emerging pathogens is that they are constantly evolving. New methods of detection and treatment are needed to keep up. The International Joint Commission reports that “improved, more efficient and more sensitive tools and methods are needed to monitor and model microbial risks.” The World Health Organization advises that “advances in analytical techniques are a fundamental component of the exploration of emerging pathogens.” The development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique and laser light Flow Cytometry are examples of methods essential for the analysis of pathogens in water. Unfortunately, these technologies do not commonly form part of the arsenal in monitoring the purity of our drinking water.