Dense fog advisory issued for lakeshore counties until 10 a.m. Tuesday

‘A potential health hazard:’ Study finds human bacteria, viruses from sewage in Milwaukee streams

MILWAUKEE — Two types of human-associated bacteria and three types of human viruses were detected in Milwaukee streams within the Menomonee River watershed, according to a recent study led by the U.S. Geological Survey.

A news release issued by the USGS Tuesday, Feb. 19 said the sites with the highest total virus concentration were:

The three viruses detected in the study were adenovirus C, D, F, which was the most common and can cause minor respiratory illnesses; adenovirus A; and enterovirus, which can cause symptoms similar to the common cold, the release said. The scientists found at least one of these viruses in 20 to 73 percent of samples during low water flows and in 24 to 61 percent of samples during high-flow events, depending on sampling location.

The release said the two types of bacteria associated with human waste that were tested were human Bacteroides and Lachnospiraceae. Depending on sample location and bacteria type, bacteria were found in 43 to 94 percent of samples during low-flow periods and in 67 to 100 percent of samples during high flows.

The sites with the highest concentration of bacteria were:

According to the release, the bacteria themselves do not pose a health hazard and are common in the human body, but they enter waterways through sewage. The presence of these bacteria in water indicates that sewage is also present, and sewage carries material such as viruses that can cause illness. These indicators of sewage can be influenced by environmental factors, which likely caused bacteria levels to increase while virus levels decreased as they were transported to the lower portion of the watershed.

“Leaky infrastructure and overflows from sanitary sewers can contaminate urban waterways, and the detection of human-associated bacteria and viruses indicates the presence of sewage, a potential health hazard. Results from our study can help Milwaukee-area water managers develop strategies to efficiently remediate or minimize sewage contamination. These findings showed that human viruses and human bacteria were both present albeit at different occurrence levels, highlighting the strength of analyzing multiple indicators of human sewage for a more complete assessment of contamination in urban streams. The findings also suggest that viruses and bacteria move differently through the watershed,” said Peter Lenaker, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the study.

From 2009-2011, scientists with the USGS, U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sampled surface water from six Menomonee River stream locations in Milwaukee to measure human sewage contamination in the watershed. The scientists collected samples during periods of high water flow from rain, snowmelt or both, and periods of low water flow. The study found that human viruses were present in up to 38 percent of the samples and human bacteria were present much more frequently in the samples.

They tested 228 samples for eight types of human viruses and for two types of bacteria that are associated with human waste. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

FOX6 reached out to Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) for comment. We were told this is a very common thing and not unique to the Milwaukee area. We’re awaiting further response.

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