At the beginning of August I had a fantastic opportunity to travel over to Michigan State University to attend their course on Quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA). QMRA is not only a bit of a mouthful, but a set of methods to assess and tackle the risks posed by microbes to human health. This could be from legionella in air conditioning units to viruses in bathing water. This course embodied everything that, for me, a PhD is about: Learning new skills, solving problems with real world impacts and meeting inspirational people.
The Flint water crisis
The opening talk was given by Suzanne Cupal from the public health department at Flint, Michigan. Suzanne talked about the Flint water crisis, which began in the spring of 2014 when the source of the Flint drinking water was switched. In short, failings by the water company meant that no investigation into nor consideration was given to the differences in source water. The new water source led to corrosion of the lead pipes distributing the water. Not only was the population of Flint, over 100,000 people, exposed to extremely high lead levels but it is the most likely cause of outbreaks of legionella in Flint. I feel naïve because until Suzanne’s talk I had assumed the Flint water crisis was over, fixed. It’s not unreasonable to assume that in a developed country drinking water would be a very high priority for the power that be. Unbelievably, the crisis is still going on. The water supply has been switched back, but the damage done to the pipes remains and with it the increased risk of legionella. Suzanne pointed out that the area effected is a low income area, it is difficult to imagine that a water supply would be compromised in this way for as long in a rich area, the Chelsea water crisis maybe? Suzanne and the team at the health department along with academics have worked tirelessly to gather data and help the people effected by the water crisis. You can get updates of Flint here and read a good article here .
What the Flint water crisis shows is just how much we take clean drinking water, bathing water and good health for granted; in reality there are a whole range of chemicals and microbes which can pollute waters and cause harm to people drinking or using the water. It is difficult to understand how much harm some of these pollutants can do, the concentrations of these pollutants changes in the environment and it may take centuries before others show health effects. We need some way to estimate what risk these pollutants pose to human health. Quantitative risk assessments try to estimate the risks from these pollutants to help us understand how to minimise the risks.
The QMRA course was an intense 10 days, with workshops and seminars each day covering the varied topics that make up QMRA. As assessment for the course we were put into groups to complete a risk assessment as a case study throughout the week which we presented in a half-day conference at the end of the week. A QMRA has 5 stages:
(Picture adapted from QMRAwiki
There is lots more information of the QMRAwiki maintained by MSU if you are interested.
It was a fantastic course and I was lucky to meet some inspirational people, one of whom Professor Rose was recently named as the 2016 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate http://www.siwi.org/prizes/stockholmwaterprize/laureates/2016-2/ an fantastic achievement. I hope everyone’s research goes well and look forward to seeing you all again soon!
Weaving QMRA into my research
QMRA has a wide range of interesting applications and is directly applicable to the management of bathing waters. I am hoping to include a QMRA using microbial source tracking in my current project to help the people who manage catchments and beaches to make more informed decisions. How we will achieve this is yet to be seen so watch this space!
I need to say a huge thank you to the Society of Microbiology and the US National Science Foundation who provided funding allowing me make the most of this opportunity and attend the course, and to Mark Weir and Jade Mitchell from MSU for organising a fantastic course.