'CSI-style forensics' will help prevent bathing water pollution

Posted: Wednesday 14th October 2009

The Environment Agency has developed a cutting edge DNA technique to prevent the pollution of bathing water. The ‘CSI Seaside’ project is believed to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The most common causes of bathing water pollution are agricultural manure, animal faeces or human sewage. The Environment Agency’s new technology will help pinpoint the source of faecal and sewage pollution, whether it is runoff from agricultural land or from a sewage outlet pipe.

Although 97 per cent of beaches have good quality water, a minority of bathing waters have continual problems with pollution, particularly after heavy rainfall.

The police have long used scientific techniques to investigate crime. This includes everything from fingerprinting to matching the DNA from bodily fluids or clothing fibres found at the crime scene. Now the Environment Agency will use similar techniques to trace where pollution has come from and help it to target action.

By isolating the DNA of faecal matter sometimes found in bathing water, the agency’s National Laboratory Service is now able to tell whether it is human or animal in origin. The process is called Microbial Source Tracking (MST). Once the technique is perfected, Environment Officers will swiftly be able to perform analysis, identify the sources of pollution and take action to stop it entering our bathing water.

The technique is currently being used at numerous bathing water sites around the country. It is hoped that this advanced method of investigation will eventually lead to bringing the small number of failed bathing waters up to a safe standard, while raising overall quality across the country to the best among Europe for swimmers.

The Environment Agency is also trialling sophisticated modelling methods to predict water quality at our beaches. The team analyses a host of factors including rainfall, river flow and tidal patterns to give a clearer idea of the cleanliness of the sea on a daily basis. In time, the Environment Agency hopes to

provide local authorities with a daily forecast for beaches to help better inform the public.

Advanced monitoring and prediction projects have been given an additional £350,000 boost in financial year 09/10 to accelerate their development.

Last year, 97 per cent of bathing waters in England and Wales passed the EU quality standards, compared to just 78 per cent in 1990. This comes as a result of the Environment Agency’s work with the water industry to invest over £8 billion over the past 20 years to improve sewage treatment and reduce sewage overflow into the sea and rivers.

Doug Wilson, Head of Water Quality and Monitoring at the Environment Agency, said:

"Bathing water quality has improved dramatically over the last 20 years and almost every beach now meets quality standards. But we want to do even more.

"By using forensic techniques, we can help pinpoint the exact causes of pollution and tackle them, helping us to make sure that water will continue to improve in future years for our bathers."

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