Fecal pollution of recreational waters can cause scenic blight and pose a threat to public health, resulting in beach advisories and closures. Fecal indicator bacteria (total and fecal coliforms, Escherichia coli
, and enterococci), and alternative indicators of fecal pollution (Clostridium perfringens
and bacteriophages) are routinely used in the assessment of sanitary quality of recreational waters. However, fecal indicator bacteria (FIB), and alternative indicators are found in the gastrointestinal tract of humans, and many other animals and therefore are considered general indicators of fecal pollution. As such, there is room for improvement in terms of their use for informing risk assessment and remediation strategies. Microbial source tracking (MST) genetic markers are closely associated with animal hosts and are used to identify fecal pollution sources. In this review, we examine 73 papers generated over 40 years that reported the relationship between at least one indicator and one pathogen group or species. Nearly half of the reports did not include statistical analysis, while the remainder were almost equally split between those that observed statistically significant relationships and those that did not. Statistical significance was reported less frequently in marine and brackish waters compared to freshwater, and the number of statistically significant relationships was considerably higher in freshwater (p
< 0.0001). Overall, significant relationships were more commonly reported between FIB and pathogenic bacteria or protozoa, compared to pathogenic viruses (p
: 0.0022–0.0005), and this was more pronounced in freshwater compared to marine. Statistically significant relationships were typically noted following wet weather events and at sites known to be impacted by recent fecal pollution. Among the studies that reported frequency of detection, FIB were detected most consistently, followed by alternative indicators. MST markers and the three pathogen groups were detected least frequently. This trend was mirrored by reported concentrations for each group of organisms (FIB > alternative indicators > MST markers > pathogens). Thus, while FIB, alternative indicators, and MST markers continue to be suitable indicators of fecal pollution, their relationship with waterborne pathogens, particularly viruses, is tenuous at best and influenced by many different factors such as frequency of detection, variable shedding rates, differential fate and transport characteristics, as well as a broad range of site-specific factors such as the potential for the presence of a complex mixture of multiple sources of fecal contamination and pathogens.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited