Risk-based water quality thresholds for coliphages in surface waters: effect of temperature and contamination aging†
Coliphages, viruses that infect Escherichia coli, have been used for decades to assess surface water quality yet there is no guideline for interpreting their concentrations. The present study uses a quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) framework to derive risk-based surface water quality thresholds for somatic and F+ or male-specific coliphages. The risk-based threshold is the concentration at which the risk of gastro-intestinal illness is simulated to be 32/1000. The framework specifically investigates a simplified hazard scenario where recreational swimmers come into contact with water contaminated with untreated sewage containing coliphages and enteric pathogens. The framework considers exposure to sewage of diverse ages and thus accounts for the decay of coliphages and pathogens over time. As decay rate constants depend on temperature, the model considers the effect of temperature on the risk-based threshold. When exposure to fresh, unaged sewage contamination occurs, the risk-based water quality threshold for somatic and F+ coliphages is 60 PFU per 100 mL and 30 PFU per 100 mL, respectively, and temperature independent. The risk-based threshold decreases as the contamination ages because, on average, coliphages decay more quickly than norovirus, the pathogen that contributes the most to risk. The decrease in the risk-based threshold with contaminant age is equal to the difference in the first order decay rate constants of coliphages and norovirus. Since coliphage decay rate constants are larger at 25 °C than at 15 °C, and norovirus decay rate constants are a weak function of temperature, risk-based thresholds decrease more quickly with age at 25 °C than at 15 °C. For the common case where the age of contamination is unknown, the risk-based threshold for both coliphages is between ∼1 PFU per 100 mL and ∼10 PFU per 100 mL, depending on model assumptions. Future work can apply this QMRA framework for identifying risk-based thresholds for coliphages from different hazards (treated wastewater or animal feces) or from mixtures of contamination of different ages and sources.