Creepy Crawlies

By Regina Klepikow

It is almost that time of year when all of Mother Nature invades your space and creeps you out.  It is funny how we as humans have fears of small insects and spiders.  Most of us are quick to jump on a chair or run out of a room with the reflexes of The Six Million Dollar Man when we spot a spider on the wall or see a beetle scurry across the floor.  My daughter and my niece have a thing where they crouch down and move their hands in such a fashion that they try to resemble a bug of some sort; all while running around sporadically, wiggling their fingers and screaming “Creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies everywhere” repeatedly.  It is a hilarious sight to see.

All this has begged the question, “Why are we scared of things we can see and not so scared of things we cannot see?” I am positive that there are many “creepy crawlies” out there that we cannot see that we should be worried about. Do not get me wrong, I am not trying to freak anyone out but it is a cause for concern. We all get cautious when we here about someone having the flu and we have to work alongside them. We all know that when cold and flu season come around that we have to pay more attention to our actions and wash our hands or use more sanitizer. We all know that preparing and cooking meat at a certain temperature is necessary in order to keep from acquiring a food borne illness. I am a moderate germ-a-phobe when it comes to coughing people, snotty babies and raw meat. However, how often do people think about bacteria or invisible “creepy crawlies” in our drinking waters or recreational waters?

It is fairly common to grab a glass out of your cabinet and walk over to your refrigerator or kitchen faucet to get a glass of water, and just as common in the summer time to go swimming at a lake or maybe gather a group of friends for a float trip.  Therefore, if the things we can see scare us … why not the things we cannot see (no not the paranormal…muwahahaha) like microscopic bacteria.  Well, fortunately the EPA has got us covered.  As Jeff had blogged about acronym soup, the CWA and SDWA are laws put in place to protect the environments’ watersheds from contaminants and to ensure the quality of our drinking water.

I work most closely with Escherichia coli, or E. coli. (pictured to the right)  This microbe is about 1-3 microns or micrometers long in comparison to a strand of hair, which is about 50 microns thick. Typically, it is hard to see anything smaller than a millimeter (1000 microns) with the naked eye.  Currently EPA and State environmental and public health agencies use E. coli is an indicator organism. This means that it is easier to test and analyze for E. coli than any other pathogens in a body of water.  When a water sample has been collected, it goes back to a laboratory to be analyzed, and if E. coli is found above particular levels, that indicates the potential of other harmful bacteria or other microorganisms in that water source at levels of concern.  Bear in mind not all strains of E. coli are harmful. Contaminated waters usually contain high levels E. coli and clean unpolluted waters generally do not contain very small levels of E. coli if any.  For that reason, when you hear an alert from your city water department about a boil order that means the water was potentially compromised.  By boiling your drinking water, you kill living organism that could be harmful to your health; thus reducing your potential risk of infection.    When your local parks and recreation departments close a swimming beach or water body it is usually because the E. coli counts exceeded a particular level associated with increased risk of infection.   The picture to the left is one of the more common methods for analyzing E. coli.

Have you ever had traveled across the US border or abroad?  Have you ever been swimming at a lake then accidentally swallowed the water?  Have you ever acquired “the stomach flu” after the fact? If you have then you mostly likely drank or swallowed an invisible creepy crawly.  Now anytime I see a potential “germy” situation… I picture my daughter and niece running around, bodies contorted with their fingers wiggling and singing “creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies everywhere”.

Regina Klepikow is a Life Scientist for EPA Region 7. She is a Drinking Water Certification Officer and maintains the microbiology laboratory at the Science and Technology Center.  She loves to spend time at the lake with her family.  She always keeps disinfectants nearby because “you never know when you will need them.”

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