RACINE — Most people who use a beach for swimming or other recreation have experienced water-quality advisories and closed beaches. As a result of research projects under the direction of University of Wisconsin-Parkside graduate Dr. Julie Kinzelman (’84, medical technology/biological sciences), water-quality advisories for Racine’s popular North Beach more accurately reflect that day’s water conditions.
“I don’t think people realize that when they are here, using North Beach, they are getting a same-day result [water-quality sample],” Kinzelman said. “And that we’re the only place in the whole country that has permission to do that. It took a lot of work; we had to make a scientific case.”
At every other beach in the United States, water quality is monitored using culture tests approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether a beach can be open for swimming. In Racine, the EPA now allows a rapid molecular test otherwise known as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (QPCR).
The EPA and others have developed rapid QPCR tests but so far Racine is the only area to implement them. Why? Because Kinzelman and a team of student and graduate researchers, including UW-Parkside graduate Monica Schmidt (’11, biological sciences), have been doing their homework for the past five years. Their research convinced the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and EPA that QPCR is just as protective of public health as a culture test. The important and differentiating element is speed.
“The culture test takes 18 to 24 hours,” Kinzelman said. “So when anybody in the country posts a water-quality advisory, they’re essentially telling people, ‘We’re sorry the water you swam in yesterday was bad, so we’re going to post today, just in case it is still bad.’
“Water quality changes very quickly. Most of time when you post the advisory, that day the water is actually good.”
QPCR results are available in a few hours. A water sample is taken at 7 a.m. and local public health officials know if the beach needs to be closed by 10:30.
“Maybe the water quality has changed because of a large rainfall,” Kinzelman said. “It’s a same-day decision. We’re keeping swimmers out when we need to, and we’re not wasting beach usage days that generate a lot of economic revenue.”
Other UW-Parkside graduates have played key roles. Jennifer Lavender (’06, molecular biology/’08, applied molecular biology) began comparative research between the culture and rapid molecular tests in 2007 while she was a graduate student. Lavender later conducted similar studies for two years at the EPA office in Cincinnati. She is now the microbiology supervisor at Madison Dane County Public Health.
In 2009 and 2010, Michelle Leittl (’08, molecular biology) worked on another important step in the process, one that would be necessary to contain costs.
The DNR requires that a water sample be collected every 500 meters of linear beach length. North Beach is 823 meters, therefore, requiring the collection of just one sample. Kinzelman, however, believes that one test on North Beach may not be characteristic of the entire beach.
“Historically, we would take four samples,” she said. “To look at saving analytical costs, the cost of the test, we wanted to see if you could collect four samples, mix them together, do one lab analysis and it would be equivalent of doing the four individual samples and averaging the results.”
Leittl’s research showed that the practice of mixing four water samples (composite sampling) worked for QPCR the way it had for the culture test. “That was particularly important,” Kinzelman said, “because QPCR is a more costly test.”
Research results over the past five years have been widely distributed. Lavender’s work, part of her master’s thesis, was published in the scientific journal “Water Research” in 2009. Leittl’s work formed the basis of a book chapter published by the Royal Chemical Society this past year.
“We had to prove that switching from culture to QPCR would be as protective of public health,” Kinzelman said, “That we would keep people out of the water when the water quality was bad and allow them to swim when it was good.”