DNA detectives tackle beach water pollution

THE ENVIRONMENT Agency (EA) has turned to a cutting-edge DNA technique to prevent the pollution of bathing water. The CSI Seaside project, which is understood to be the first of its kind worldwide, will help pinpoint the source of faecal and sewage pollution, the most common causes of bathing water pollution whether it is runoff from agricultural land or from a sewage outlet pipe.

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

Doug Wilson, head of Water Quality and Monitoring at the EA, explained: “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.”

The police have long used DNA techniques to investigate crime, and the EA will use similar techniques to trace where pollution has come from to target action. By isolating the DNA of faecal matter sometimes found in bathing water, the agency’s National Laboratory Service can tell whether it is human or animal in origin.

The Microbial Source Tracking (MST) technique will swiftly be able to perform analysis, identify the sources of pollution and take action to stop the pollution entering our bathing water.

The technique is being used at bathing water sites nationwide. It is hoped that this advanced method of investigation will 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 EA is also trialling sophisticated modelling methods to predict water quality at our beaches. Advanced monitoring and prediction projects have been given a £350,000 boost in financial year 2009/10 to accelerate their development.

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