Exposure to wastewater-related pathogens results in millions of cases of illness and an economic burden of 12 billion USD annually worldwide. Since 90 percent of the world's household wastewater enters the environment without being disinfected, coastal beaches are often polluted by wastewater, which can greatly impact the health of people that swim and play at the beach. Despite scientific advancements, coastal water quality monitoring approaches rely on outdated compliance practices that do not accurately identify public health risks. This project will directly measure pathogen concentrations and identify behaviors that put individuals at risk of illness from coastal water use. These risks will be quantified and assessed from cultural and biological perspectives, and subsequently used to recommend societal changes that promote benefits to human health and the sustainability of coastal ecosystems. This innovative study will advance the goals of the NSF Coastal SEES program by identifying practices that might expose people to pathogens in wastewater, improving sustainable water management approaches in the tropics, and recommending economically- and socially-feasible interventions to minimize human health risks. This project will engage many different stakeholders including community members, national governments, and international organizations in order to effectively initiate improvements in coastal water management. Community and K-12 education will be promoted through the creation of bilingual, coastal water quality modules and the interdisciplinary research community dedicated to improving water quality will be expanded through the training of three graduate students, twelve undergraduate students, and one postdoctoral researcher.
This project is the first to characterize microbial water quality and associated risk of illness using a holistic water management approach (combination of sanitary surveys, targeted water quality analyses, and quantitative microbial risk assessment), which incorporates ethnographic and epidemiological studies to inform and validate microbial risk assessments. Going beyond simple, end-point risk assessments, the researchers will use exploratory quantitative microbial risk assessment to demonstrate how advancing local understanding and building knowledge regarding risk from coastal recreation can, when coupled with appropriate technological and social interventions, improve microbial water quality management and public health at a local, regional, and even global level. In collaboration with identified governmental and non-governmental stakeholders, the recommended societal changes will be strategically communicated to individuals locally and regionally. Using the polluted Costa Rican JacÃ³ beach as a model system, this project will provide strategies to enhance coastal microbial water management worldwide by identifying improved household-wastewater pollution indicators for tropical regions, implementing an emerging holistic approach to water quality management, and incorporating the critical roles that human activities and perception play in mitigating microbial risk of illness.