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New test will give beachgoers faster E. coli level results

Jun 18, 2015

Credit Joseph Novak / Creative Commons

Health officials close beaches when levels of E. coli bacteria are too high. But it takes 24 hours to get test results.

A new test identifies E. coli DNA. You don’t have to wait a full day to grow a bacteria culture in a dish, so the new test produces results in a few hours.

“The method might be rapid, but if you have to drive two hours (from the beach) to get to the lab, it’s not rapid anymore,” said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

That’s why the DEQ awarded $500,000 to update labs all over the state.

She says some “high priority” beaches, especially in populous areas like New York and Orange County, California already use the faster test. So do some labs in Wisconsin and northeast Ohio.

“But it’s quite a big step, to go across the entire state and say we’re going to do all the beaches,” Briggs said, “Whether it’s on a Great Lake, or it’s on an inland lake or it’s on a river, we want to use this rapid test on all of our beaches.”

Officials will use the old and new methods this summer to compare results and make sure the new process works.

Briggs says, in the future, the DNA method will allow lab technicians to determine the general source of the E. coli bacteria too.

“It’s very difficult to differentiate one type of bacteria from a cow or a bird based on what’s growing on a plate,” she said.