New project launched to study links between flooding and waterborne disease outbreaks

A new research project investigating the links between flooding events and the incidence of waterborne infectious disease outbreaks in Ireland was officially launched at UCD Earth Institute today.

The multidisciplinary project will involve social scientists, environmental scientists, engineers and public health researchers from UCD, University of Limerick, DIT and Trinity College.

Flood damage to infrastructure receives widespread media attention but the potential public health consequences for society from future increased flooding as a result of climate change has received little consideration.

A major public health concern, according to Dr Eoin O’Neill from UCD Earth Institute and principal investigator of the project, is that more intense or prolonged rainfall events can mobilise viral and bacterial pathogens from agricultural and domestic sources, transmit them to rivers and groundwater and increase the incidence of waterborne infectious diseases.

Previous research conducted by Dr. Jean O’Dwyer, a UL-based collaborator on the project, has already shown that increased rainfall in Ireland increases the likelihood of groundwater contamination with the familiar pathogen E. coli. 

The project aims to quantify the effects of intensive rainfall and flooding on the incidence and severity of pathogens and to identify the knowledge and awareness gaps of well owners and users in relation to drinking water sources and flood awareness and preparedness.

It is hoped that this project will help reduce the occurrence of illnesses caused by waterborne diseases, such as gastrointestinal illness.

The project will provide an evidence base to inform policy and practice and develop guidelines to inform public authorities when responding to extreme weather conditions.

According to Dr Paul Hynds – an epidemiologist based in DIT and a collaborator on the project: “This should be of particular interest to Irish policymakers including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Office of Public Works (OPW) as 800,000 Irish people rely on a private unregulated groundwater source (wells) for daily water consumption, in addition to many holidaymakers.”

The project is funded by the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Irish Research Council.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 28th, 2017.

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