Changes in Escherichia coli to enteric protozoa ratios in rivers: Implications for risk-based assessment of drinking water treatment requirements

Émile Sylvestre, Sarah Dorner, Jean Baptiste Burnet, Patrick Smeets, Gertjan Medema, Philippe Cantin, Manuela Villion, Caroline Robert, Donald Ellis, Pierre Servais, Michèle Prévost

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Minimum treatment requirements are set in response to established or anticipated levels of enteric pathogens in the source water of drinking water treatment plants (DWTPs). For surface water, contamination can be determined directly by monitoring reference pathogens or indirectly by measuring fecal indicators such as Escherichia coli (E. coli). In the latter case, a quantitative interpretation of E. coli for estimating reference pathogen concentrations could be used to define treatment requirements. This study presents the statistical analysis of paired E. coli and reference protozoa (Cryptosporidium, Giardia) data collected monthly for two years in source water from 27 DWTPs supplied by rivers in Canada. E. coli/Cryptosporidium and E. coli/Giardia ratios in source water were modeled as the ratio of two correlated lognormal variables. To evaluate the potential of E. coli for defining protozoa treatment requirements, risk-based critical mean protozoa concentrations in source water were determined with a reverse quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) model. Model assumptions were selected to be consistent with the World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for drinking-water quality. The sensitivity of mean E. coli concentration trigger levels to identify these critical concentrations in source water was then evaluated. Results showed no proportionalities between the log of mean E. coli concentrations and the log of mean protozoa concentrations. E. coli/protozoa ratios at DWTPs supplied by small rivers in agricultural and forested areas were typically 1.0 to 2.0-log lower than at DWTPs supplied by large rivers in urban areas. The seasonal variations analysis revealed that these differences were related to low mean E. coli concentrations during winter in small rivers. To achieve the WHO target of 10−6 disability-adjusted life year (DALY) per person per year, a minimum reduction of 4.0-log of Cryptosporidium would be required for 20 DWTPs, and a minimum reduction of 4.0-log of Giardia would be needed for all DWTPs. A mean E. coli trigger level of 50 CFU 100 mL−1 would be a sensitive threshold to identify critical mean concentrations for Cryptosporidium but not for Giardia. Treatment requirements higher than 3.0-log would be needed at DWTPs with mean E. coli concentrations as low as 30 CFU 100 mL−1 for Cryptosporidium and 3 CFU 100 mL−1 for Giardia. Therefore, an E. coli trigger level would have limited value for defining health-based treatment requirements for protozoa at DWTPs supplied by small rivers in rural areas.

Original languageEnglish
Article number117707
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalWater Research
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Cryptosporidium
  • Drinking water
  • Escherichia coli
  • Giardia
  • Minimum treatment requirements
  • Quantitative microbial risk assessment


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