Pathogen Project: Clean Water Fund - EH: Minnesota Department of Health

Pathogen Project
Clean Water Fund

Groundwater is the drinking water source for 75% of Minnesotans. While public water systems are regularly inspected and tested for many contaminants, we have limited information about pathogen occurrence in groundwater and its effects on public health. Pathogens are microbes that can make someone sick, such as bacteria or viruses. Pathogens can get into wells when feces from leaky sewer lines, septic systems, livestock operations, or wildlife are able to get into the groundwater or directly into the well.

A study on pathogens in groundwater was requested by the Minnesota Legislature and is funded through the Clean Water Fund. This study was previously called the “Minnesota Groundwater Virus Monitoring Study.” MDH is now referring to the study as the “Pathogen Project” because we are sampling for multiple kinds of pathogens, not just viruses.

March 20, 2019 News Release: Research work evaluates evidence of microbes in some public water supply wells

March 10, 2017 News Release: Study finds new evidence that viruses and bacteria may be found in some public water supply wells

About the Pathogen Project

The project includes two activities that will help MDH understand and reduce the public health risk from pathogens in groundwater.

Water Monitoring – sampling to see if pathogens are in the groundwater and develop tools to predict pathogens without expensive and difficult testing

Community Illness Study – participants in study communities keep a diary of symptoms and activities to link illness with pathogens in water

Person in a laboratory Person sick to his or her stomach

Study results from earlier phases of this project suggest that groundwater sources are more susceptible to pathogen contamination than previously thought. In the current phase, MDH will investigate the most likely sources and pathways of pathogen contamination. MDH will also examine the timing of pathogen contamination relative to groundwater recharge events such as precipitation or snowmelt. By learning about the sources, pathways, and timing of pathogen contamination, we will better understand how to protect drinking water sources and public health.  

Pathogens and health

  • People who drink water contaminated with pathogens may become sick with an illness that causes diarrhea and vomiting, such as hepatitis A or gastroenteritis.
  • Data from national surveys estimate that 30 percent of drinking water wells may be contaminated with viruses that can infect humans.1
  • How many people get sick from pathogens in drinking water is unknown.

What protects Minnesotans from pathogens in drinking water?

1 U.S. EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2006c. Occurrence and Monitoring Document for the Final Ground Water Rule (PDF) (EPA Publication 815-R-06-012, accessed June 2, 2015)

Updated Monday, 18-Nov-2019 16:02:38 CST