Coliform Bacteria Information for Homeowners - Water Testing and Water Contamination

Photograph of an AquaCheck water test kit. Total Coliform - Testing Water for Bacterial Contaminants

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This article gives advice on testing water for bacterial contamination using the total coliform test.

Why do we test water for Coliform bacteria?Definitions of types of bacteria tests done in water potability testing. When do we test for fecal Coliform ? Escherichia coli / E. coli. What is HPC heterotrophic plate count testing & how is HPC teting used?

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Water Potability Tests - "Bacteria" tests or Microbial Contamiantion Tests

Photograph of a total <EM>Coliform</EM> test with <EM>Coliform</EM> present - liquid turns yellowTotal Coliform or T-coli bacteria testing indicates a total count or measure of the level of coliform bacteria in a water sample.

If water "fails" a T-coli test, further testing is needed. Because not all coliform bacteria are cause for "failing" a water potability test, if a water test result discloses high or excessive T-coli alone, what we can conclude is that further investigation is needed.

If the water test passes a T-coli test as not detected, absent, or below your community's acceptable minimum level, the water is considered safe to drink insofar as bacterial contamination is concerned. Of course other contaminants (chemicals, for example) could still be present in such a water sample.

See Details about Total Coliform Bacteria Information for Homeowners.

Escherichia coli (EC or E-coli) bacteria tests in water indicate the presence of (or depending on the test performed, the count or level of colony forming units of) Escherichia coli.

If water "faIls" an E-coli test, the water is not safe to drink. Escherichia coli is a specific indicator of the presence of humanh or animal fecal waste contamiantion of the water supply, a water test which detects an unacceptable level of Escherichia coli is unsafe to drink. The source of contamination needs to be found and corrected or if this is not possible, an appropriate water treatment system is installed.

As we suggested above for T-coli, if the water test passes an E-coli test as not detected, absent, or below your community's acceptable minimum level, the water is considered safe to drink insofar as bacterial contamination is concerned. Furthermore, T-coli may be present and E-coli absent and the water test may be considered acceptable. However in our OPINION, a high T-coli water test

Of course other contaminants (chemicals, for example) could still be present in such a water sample.

HPC heterotrophic plate count in water test results: aerobic and facultative aerobic bacteria are both detected by the HPC count.

The HPC count is not part of most basic water potability tests. You may order this test, for example, as part of diagnosing a known or suspected problem, or to help check for growth of microbial contaminants in treated water. HPC or the heterotrophic plate count, along with total coliforms (T-coli) and Escherichia coliform (E-coli) counts are used to indicate the level of microbiological contamiantion of water tests for potability.

For more information about the use of HPC testing of drinking water see this World Health Organization paper: The History and Use of HPC in Drinking-Water Quality Management (web searhc 02/10/2011, original source

A basic water "bacteria test" may or may not be equally sensitive to all three of these data, and not all water tests or water test labs report all three of these individual measures.

Watch out: even if your water sample passes a coliform test, bacteria test, or T-coli or E-coli test, that does not guarantee that there are no chemical contaminants in the water supply.

Not all water bacteria tests are the same. See these articles about water tests for bacterial or microbial contamination:

Details about Total Coliform Bacteria Information for Homeowners

Photograph of a total <EM>Coliform</EM> test with <EM>Coliform</EM> absebt - liquid remains clear Photograph of a total <EM>Coliform</EM> test with <EM>Coliform</EM> present - liquid turns yellow

The photos shown here illustrate the simple and inexpensive Total Coliform Test procedure.

When the reagent is added to a properly-collected water sample, the liquid remains clear (left hand photo) if the total Coliform count in the sample is less than 1 colony-forming-unit or 1cfu/100ml and turns yellow (right hand photo) if the total Coliform count is above 1 cfu/100ml of water in the water test sample.

What are "Total Coliform Bacteria" and why test for them?

Scott Bradley, Aquacheck Water Testing Laboratory

What exactly are Total Coliform bacteria and why do we test for them in our drinking water? Total Coliform bacteria are part of a family of bacteria called, Enterobacteriaciae, or Enterics, for short. Coliform bacteria have some interesting characteristics that allow us to use them as indicator organisms.

In this case, a Coliform present sample in drinking water indicates that the source is, or recently has been infiltrated by surface water. [Coliform bacteria are almost always present in surface water.]

We use "Coliforms" to help us determine this, because Coliform bacteria are found throughout the environment, as well as on most plant material. They live longer than the pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes we don't want you to get, so it allows us to culture them in the lab.

Finding Coliform bacteria in a drinking water sample does not mean anyone is going to become ill. After personally analyzing over fifty thousand individual Coliform tests, we wish we had a nickel every time someone would say to me something like, "I've been drinking' this water for over seventy years, and we never been sick from it once!" While that may be all well and true, drinking water that contains certain contaminants has been one of the leading causes of major disease outbreaks, historically speaking.

Will Coliform bacteria in water make you sick?

When we find Coliform bacteria in your drinking water sample, as stated above, it simply indicates that the source is, or recently has been compromised by surface water. We're not so concerned about the Coliform bacteria themselves, but the "red flag" if you will, is that we don't know what else may have gotten in your drinking water system via the same route that the Coliform bacteria entered. Some types of bad microbes we don't want you to ingest, for example, would be Klebsiella, Shigella, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, or Salmonella, just to name a pesky few!

Most drilled wells are free from Coliform bacteria, but many dug wells contain Coliform. This is not surprising, since dug wells are a surface water source, which means it is above the bedrock layer. Dug wells, can be an excellent source of drinking water, but extra care should be taken to be sure there is adequate separation from the well with respect to pets, farm animals, and runoff.

If you have a dug well, the volume and taste are fine, but it keeps getting Coliform bacteria, then a viable and effective option may be to install an ultraviolet disinfection system, which kills the bacteria and other microbes by separating, or denaturing the DNA or RNA of their cells. This works well because it doesn't change the chemistry of the water like some other disinfection methods, such as chlorination.

However any water treatment system requires care and monitoring, lest you think it's working when it's not. Further, the presence of surface water in your water supply might mean that other surface contaminants, such as chemicals, are also present. If this is the case, a UV-light is not going to remove them. This is why further testing of your water may be in order before deciding just what water treatment system should be installed.

Finally, if Total Coliform bacteria is found in a drinking water sample, then the sample is also checked for a type of fecal Coliform bacteria, which is always Escherichia coli, or E. coli. The presence of E. coli may mean a septic or leach field infiltration, or in a dug well, it just may be a squirrel or field mouse that tried to make his home in your well! We'll cover well disinfection in another session.

Reader Question: intestinal issues in the home, how do I test water?

5/12/2014 Mike said:

I am on well water have been here for 4 years and my wife has recently had some intestinal issues ,mainly diarea, for about a month now and I wanted to test for anything that may cause her to have these issues, Can you advise what tests I should test for I know I have some nuicence iron bacteia, also can water be tested for Giardia,please advise,

Reply: Testing Municipal Water Supplies for Contaminants

Presuming you're in the U.S., federal regulations require very extensive and regular testing of the public water supply. But private water supply testing is more often up to individual homeowners.

Watch out: besides contaminants in the water supplhy itself, there could be an in-building contaminant source from piping, or from a source such as legionnaire's bacteria growth in a hot water tank or other bacterial contamination in a pressure tank or piping. Water conditioners can also be a contaminant reservoirs.

To check for an immediate hazard, before having done any cleaning, you can indeed obtain water test bottles and obtain water testing service either through your local health department or (usually covering a wider range of parameters) through a private or public water test lab. Certainly you can include Cryptosporidium and Giardia testing.

Watch out: some water tests require use of prepared containers and delivery of the samples to the lab within a prescribed time interval, so get those details from your lab depending on what tests you elect.

You may want to clean such tanks or treatment equipment and disinfect it as a precautionary measure, then wait 2 weeks or longer (to allow any bacteria to regenerate), then perform at a minimum a bacteria test recommended by your local water test lab.

Discuss with the lab including Giardia testing in your bacteria test result. for an unknown buildnig & situation no one can safely tell you to ignore any concern you express, but finding Giardia in a public water supply would normally be a surprise. But indeed such water quality issues are not just imaginary, as you can read in the following research citations:

Watch out: keep in mind that bactrial contaminants and other contaminants can enter the human body by more means than just drinking water, such as by foods. See Millard (1994) for an example.

Research on Cryptosporidium or Giardia Contaminants in Water Supply




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