Microbial safety

Controlling spread of infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance

Water safety is vital. Citizens must be able to drink and swim in safe water, and farmers must be able to produce plant and animal products in a safe manner, meeting all international standards. All these water resources, including reused water, must be managed safely. Microbial safety means water for which the health risks to humans (and animals) presented by pathogens and antimicrobial resistance are adequately managed. It means water that is safe-for-purpose.

Appropriate safety management is based on an understanding of the sources, transport and fate of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance in water; this includes their reaction to (disinfection) agents and other microorganisms, the effectiveness of control measures, such as water treatment, and these contaminants’ health risks. The objective is to prevent the spread of disease and ensure consumers have safe drinking water. By developing knowledge and tools, KWR provides the water sector with the means to meet increasingly stringent quality guidelines for diverse water systems and water uses.

Applying genomics and integrating knowledge into models

Hydrodynamic, treatment and risk models allow for an integrated assessment of the safety of water systems. These tools can also be used for predictions and scenario analyses for new applications, for instance, the reuse of wastewater or greywater, as well as for scenarios related to climate change or improvements in wastewater treatment. New genomics techniques (See also Hydrogenomics) provide opportunities to create a better understanding of the sources and distribution of pathogens in water. These techniques can also be applied for monitoring the sources and fate of antimicrobial resistance, the efficacy of water treatment and the safety of water – one application example is the use of RT-PCR for E. coli detection in drinking and bathing water.

Challenges in microbial safety and antimicrobial resistance research.

Knowledge and practical tools

KWR research provides the water sector with knowledge and practical tools to evaluate the microbial safety of all types of water systems. In doing so, KWR frequently responds to issues and questions raised by the sector itself. Here are a few examples of such knowledge and tools:

  • Knowledge about the occurrence of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance in contamination sources and their spread via water.
  • Understanding, lab facilities and protocols to test the efficacy of processes to remove, disinfect or inactivate microorganisms (e.g., viruses), (antimicrobial-resistant) bacteria and protozoa in the water cycle. This involves both field work, but also lab work – for example, as part of the WHO lab verification scheme of Household Water Treatment systems.
  • Development of a knowledge repository and model for the effect of water treatment processes on pathogens and antimicrobial resistance.
  • Development of hydrodynamic tools to achieve a better understanding of the contamination sources, presence and significance of pathogens in water, including an evaluation of the effectiveness of control measures.
  • Development of Microbial Source Tracking genomics methods for tracing contamination sources.
  • Development of genomics tools to determine the presence and fate of new pathogens and antimicrobial resistance in water, and for water-quality surveillance.
  • Use of Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) system for fast and effective risk analysis.
  • Development and use of Water (Cycle) Safety Plans (WSPs) to make water safe; the WSPs cover the entire range of issues, from risk identification, prioritisation, management, to communication.

Making microbial safety manageable

The KWR knowledge and tools provide the water sector with instruments to assess and manage the microbial safety of their water systems. Both in the Netherlands and internationally, KWR has a strong track record as a reliable partner in assessing and improving the safety of water systems. The applications range from drinking water supply (centralised, decentralised), reuse of wastewater (drinking water, agriculture, food industry), bathing water and industry water. KWR is a WHO Collaborating Centre for Water Quality & Health, so that developing countries can also count on our expertise; for instance, in reducing infant mortality resulting from infectious diseases caused by unsafe drinking water and unhygienic sanitation.