Assessing the risk of acute gastrointestinal illness attributable to three enteric pathogens from contaminated private water wells in Ontario
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The province of Ontario compromises the largest groundwater reliant population in Canada serving approximately 1.6 million individuals. Unlike municipal water systems, private well water is not required to meet water quality regulatory standards and thus source maintenance, treatment and testing remains the responsibility of the well owner. Infections associated with private drinking water systems are rarely documented given their typically sporadic nature, thus the human health effects (e.g., acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI)) on consumers remains relatively unknown, representing a significant gap in water safety management. The current study sought to quantify the risk of waterborne AGI attributed to Giardia, shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) and norovirus from private drinking water sources in Ontario using Monte Carlo simulation-based quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA). Findings suggest that consumption of contaminated private well water in Ontario is responsible for approximately 4823 AGI cases annually, with 3464 (71.8%) and 1359 (28.1%) AGI cases predicted to occur in consolidated and unconsolidated aquifers, respectively. By pathogen, waterborne AGI was attributed to norovirus (62%; 2991/4823), Giardia (24.6%; 1186/4823) and STEC (13.4%; 646/4823). The developed QMRA framework was used to assess the potential health impacts of partial and total well water treatment system failure. In the unlikely event of total treatment failure, total mean annual illnesses are predicted to almost double (4217 to 7064 cases per year), highlighting the importance of effective water treatment and comprehensive testing programs in reducing infectious health risks attributable to private well water in Ontario. Study findings indicate significant underreporting of waterborne AGI rates at the provincial level likely biasing public health interventions and programs that are effective in monitoring and minimizing the health risk associated with private well water.
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