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Fecal Bacteria and Human Viruses Found in Upper Florida Keys

Release Date: 07/24/2007
Contact Information: Davina Marraccini, (404) 562-8293,

(ATLANTA – JULY 24, 2007) Results released today from a three-year study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveal that common fecal indicator bacteria and human viruses are present in corals and ground water in the Upper Florida Keys. Researchers from the University of Georgia’s Department of Environmental Health Science and the U.S. Geological Survey sampled surface water, ground water and corals from five sites from the Port Largo Canal to Molasses Reef.

Fecal bacteria, which are not pathogens themselves, serve as surrogate indicators for other disease-causing microbes found in sewage. Levels of fecal bacteria detected in surface waters declined with distance from shore, but tended to be higher on the surface of corals compared to surrounding water. High levels of fecal indicator bacteria from canals were shown to move into the near shore environment with outgoing tides. The detection of these bacteria near shore suggests that land-based sources of sewage pollution, like cesspits and septic systems, may be significant contributors.

Genetic material from intestinal viruses, which can cause disease and are spread through infected human feces and urine, were found throughout the sampled area, including ground water six miles offshore. The test used to identify intestinal viruses is not designed to determine whether the viruses are alive or dead. Viruses were detected more frequently during rainfall in the summer months, when they were most likely to be found in ground water. This suggests that sewage-contaminated ground water is reaching the offshore reefs of the Florida Keys.

Installation of new wastewater management systems, such as centralized collection and advance wastewater treatment facilities, as required by Florida State Law 99-395 and recommended by the Water Quality Protection Program (WQPP) for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, are essential to restore and maintain water quality in the area. Improved storm water treatment practices recommended by the WQPP could further reduce pollutant loading near shore.

For more information on water quality in the Florida Keys, visit: