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Past studies have demonstrated an association between waterborne disease and heavy precipitation, and climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of these types of intense storm events in some parts of the United States. In this study, we examined the linkage between rainfall and sewage contamination of urban waterways and quantified the amount of sewage released from a major urban area under different hydrologic conditions to identify conditions that increase human risk of exposure to sewage.

Methods and findings

Rain events and low-flow periods were intensively sampled to quantify loads of sewage based on two genetic markers for human-associated indicator bacteria (human Bacteroides and Lachnospiraceae). Samples were collected at a Lake Michigan estuary and at three river locations immediately upstream. Concentrations of indicators were analyzed using quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), and loads were calculated from streamflow data collected at each location. Human-associated indicators were found during periods of low flow, and loads increased one to two orders of magnitude during rain events from stormwater discharges contaminated with sewage. Combined sewer overflow (CSO) events increased concentrations and loads of human-associated indicators an order of magnitude greater than heavy rainfall events without CSO influence. Human-associated indicator yields (load per km2 of land per day) were related to the degree of urbanization in each watershed. Contamination in surface waters were at levels above the acceptable risk for recreational use. Further, evidence of sewage exfiltration from pipes threatens drinking water distribution systems and source water. While this study clearly demonstrates widespread sewage contamination released from urban areas, a limitation of this study is understanding human exposure and illness rates, which are dependent on multiple factors, and gaps in our knowledge of the ultimate health outcomes.


With the prediction of more intense rain events in certain regions due to climate change, sewer overflows and contamination from failing sewer infrastructure may increase, resulting in increases in waterborne pathogen burdens in waterways. These findings quantify hazards in exposure pathways from rain events and illustrate the additional stress that climate change may have on urban water systems. This information could be used to prioritize efforts to invest in failing sewer infrastructure and create appropriate goals to address the health concerns posed by sewage contamination from urban areas.