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Researchers develop new way to test drinking water for E. coli

Water faucet
Posted at 1:47 PM, Oct 12, 2022

Many of us can turn on our tap right now and have drinkable water. However, that is not the case for tens of millions of Americans who rely on wells and other methods to get their water.

More than 43 million people—or 15% of the U.S. population—rely on domestic wells to get their drinking water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The quality and safety of water from domestic wells are not regulated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act or, in most cases, by state laws. Instead, individual homeowners are responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for monitoring water quality.

It is why researchers at the Univesity of Colorado Boulder have developed a new way to test for E. coli in drinking water.

“I’ve been working on this for six years now, during my PhD, banging my head against the lab bench for months on end,” said Emily Bedell, a mechanical and environmental engineer and lead researcher on the project. “Poop in drinking water is a huge problem worldwide.”

The group’s method for testing water is cheaper and faster than traditional methods currently used in water treatment facilities nationwide.

Currently, testing involves physically pulling a water sample from a source, filtering that water onto a Petri dish, and letting it sit in an incubator for 18 hours, which allows the liquid to evaporate, before manually counting the number of contaminants on the dish.

Bedell's method takes out all those steps, and instead, tests for the bacteria using UV light, which illuminates the E. coli particles before a sensor counts them. The old way takes 24 hours and costs $21 per test. Bedell's way takes 20 minutes and would cost around $1,000 per sensor, which extrapolates to $2.74 per test if testing is done once per day for a year.

“I might be biased, but I would say it’s groundbreaking for sure. It will save lives, prevent people from getting sick, and help people really understand what’s in their water,” said Bedell.

Bedell admits the sensor is slightly less precise than the old way of counting particles, but she says it can account for levels below when it begins to affect health, hoping more people will be able to track an issue that affects 40 million Americans a day.