Montana State University

MSU/Crow project helps diagnose water issues on reservation

August 11, 2010 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service

MSU microbiology graduate students Crystal Richards and Mari Eggers study a culture of a water sample. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)   High-Res Available

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Two Montana State University graduate students have confirmed contamination of surface and groundwater used as a source for drinking water on the Crow Reservation, something that residents had suspected.

Mari Eggers and Crystal Richards found evidence of bacteria in some sources of drinking water that can cause stomach problems, diarrhea, ulcers, pulmonary disease, pneumonia and Legionnaire's disease. They also found evidence of coliform bacteria in the surface water source for municipal water. Their data is being used by the tribe in grant applications to fund water system improvements.

The project started while Eggers was teaching environmental science at
Little Big Horn College. As her class was looking at local issues facing the Crow Tribe, she noticed that many of the issues were environmental health problems.

Eggers, who is married to a tribal member, was told by community members that water quality was a high priority concern. She teamed up with
IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) to create a hands-on water monitoring program for her students.

At the urging of community members, Eggers expanded her work on the project and is now doing so as a doctoral student in microbiology at MSU. She also has a master's degree from MSU and bachelor's and master's degrees from Stanford University.

Crystal Richards was an MSU undergraduate who collected water samples from taps and springs with LBCH students as part of the LBCH/INBRE project. She and another MSU student took the water samples back to a lab at MSU and tested them for Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with stomach ulcers. Richards decided to "get serious" about the project and is now working on a doctorate in microbiology at MSU.

Eggers and Richards didn't know each other before starting their project, but they have more than their interest in environmental health in common. They are both recipients of the
EPA STAR fellowship--Eggers in 2007 and Richards in 2008. The EPA's prestigious STAR graduate fellowship program supports masters' and doctoral candidates in environmental studies. Both women are also students at Center for Biofilm Engineering at MSU.

Eggers' and Richard's independent work morphed into a joint community-based risk assessment of chemical and microbial contamination in Crow water supplies.

They asked two basic questions: What is the risk of exposure to microbial and chemical contaminants from domestic and other water sources on the reservation? And how do you effectively conduct a community-based risk assessment as a collaborative effort of community stakeholders and university researchers?

To answer those questions, the project had to involve more than just Eggers and Richards; it involved the whole community. A 12-person steering committee composed of tribal members has been guiding the project since its inception. Steve Hamner and Sue Broadaway, members of Camper's lab group, as well as LBHC and MSU undergraduate students also contributed to the research.

"It takes a lot of self-direction and motivation to be involved in a project like this," said
Anne Camper, Eggers' and Richards' adviser, associate dean of the College of Engineering at MSU and faculty member at the Center for Biofilm Engineering. "They have to be very cognizant of the needs and wants of the community. It's more complicated and more rewarding."

Camper and Tim Ford, former head of the Department of Microbiology at MSU, were principal investigators on the project.

"The community, tribal college and MSU are all equal partners," said Eggers. "I am so impressed with how much the community knows about the local environment and how it has changed. Even without measuring anything they can describe in detail how the water quality has changed and how it affects their environment."

With Eggers focusing on the chemical aspects and Richards on the microbial, they confirmed what the tribe already suspected: some sources of water on the reservation suffer from contamination.

Most water used in reservation homes comes from wells and isn't under the jurisdiction of a municipal water department, or any state or federal laws. There is no oversight or monitoring of water quality in these wells. The community also uses local springs and rivers for drinking water and bathing.

On her end, Eggers and her LBHC colleague, Crescentia Cummins, analyze domestic water sources, springs and rivers for chemical contamination and tested local fish for mercury. They survey community members on how much water they are using and the sources of their water.

Eggers and Cummins found that levels of dissolved solids were too high in almost all the wells they tested. Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is a measure of the combined content of all inorganic and organic substances contained in the water. The TDS concentration is a secondary drinking water standard and it is more of an aesthetic rather than a health hazard.

"High TDS is not a serious health risk," said Eggers. "But, it doesn't taste good and it can cause diarrhea and stomach problems."

Many of the wells also tested positive for coliform bacteria, causing the researchers to suspect fecal contamination. In addition, some wells are high in manganese or arsenic. Fecal contamination, high manganese and arsenic all pose health risks.

Richards also found something that could pose a serious health risk. Richards started looking for Helicobacter pylori as an MSU undergraduate in cell biology and neuroscience and expanded her research as part of her Ph.D. program. She found that H. pylori wasn't prevalent in the tribe's drinking water unless there was other contamination (like from runoff after a storm).

Two other organisms--Mycobacterium avium and Legionella pneumophila--were present in drinking water in a minority of homes. The former can cause pulmonary disease and pneumonia while the latter is responsible for Legionnaires' disease--a severe form of pneumonia.

Eggers, Richards and Cummins provided homeowners with the results of their water tests, and options for water treatment.

After collecting water samples, Richards had to develop a way to grow H. pylori in a culture. The usual method of culturing microorganisms doesn't work with H. Pylori. Although detecting DNA can show that the microorganism was present, the inability to culture it--grow it in a lab--means that there is no way to tell if it was alive and capable of infection.

"As soon as the pathogen leaves the human host and enters the environment, it becomes non-culturable due to stress," said Richards. "If you can't grow it, you can't prove it is infectious."

Richards is currently working on a culturing system that "seems to be working." H. pylori may be more prevalent than originally thought.

"Her success in culturing H. pylori would be a significant advancement around the world," Camper said.

In this collaborative project, analyzing the water is only part of the plan.

A tribal water and wastewater committee is raising money to upgrade their water and sewer system. The data from Eggers' and Richards' analysis are providing necessary information for their grant applications.

"It's been very educational seeing how the pieces fit together--tribal concerns, science, writing a journal article--the whole collaborative project," said Richards.

Eggers agrees, "It's a really wonderful, rich process to be involved in. You can't control the process as much as you do in traditional research, you can grow the project and the result is much better science."

The results of the committee's work were published in the July/September 2010 issue of the journal, "Family & Community Health."

"We hope that what we learned through this process will not only be of direct benefit to the Crow Reservation community, but will also provide a community-based risk assessment model for any rural community concerned with environmental health issues," Eggers said.

When Eggers graduates from MSU she plans to continue working on environmental health problems on the Crow Reservation. Richards is applying for postdoctoral fellowships.

This project was funded by the Center for Native Health Partnerships with additional funding from INBRE and the Environmental Protection Agency.