Rhodes University’s Biotechnology Innovation Centre assists community with water testing after E. coli detection

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Dr Nhamo Mutingwende, a post-doctoral researcher at RUBIC, collects water samples for testing
Dr Nhamo Mutingwende, a post-doctoral researcher at RUBIC, collects water samples for testing

Following a Makana Municipality statement regarding the detection of E. coli in Makana’s water supply last month, Rhodes University’s Biotechnology Innovation Centre (RUBIC) availed its water-testing capabilities to the community to provide consistent and transparent monitoring of the effectiveness of the municipality’s disinfection measures.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and South African National Standard’s (SANS) 241 standard requirement when testing 100 ml of water for E. coli in drinking water is that it “must not be detectable”. The presence of E. coli in drinking water indicates the presence of faecal contamination and requires prompt disinfection and follow-up testing to ensure that disinfection is effective.

Since the E. coli detection notice was issued, Dr Nhamo Mutingwende, a post-doctoral researcher at RUBIC, supported by a PhD student, Siphumze Bani, and two MSc students, Shannon Rutherford and Tasmita Singh, worked late nights and weekends to sample water across Makhanda. A city-wide water collection can easily take up to six hours to complete. After each collection, the sample must be kept cool and rushed back to the Water Testing Laboratory, as analysis needs to be performed within a few hours after collection.

The testing involves preparing sample bottles by first autoclaving them in a sterilisation process. These sterilised bottles are then used for the sampling process and returned to the Laboratory to be processed for testing. This process can take a few hours, depending on the number of samples.

RUBIC Administrator, Lwazikazi Madikiza, has managed the sample collection and testing logistics, which has included vehicle hire and ordering additional laboratory supplies and reagents.

The RUBIC Water Testing Laboratory’s testing is dependent on ‘water-on’ days, so samples have been collected over three-day intervals, which includes testing conducted at different water reservoirs.

The staff of RUBIC’s Water Testing Laboratory, headed by Professor Janice Limson and Dr Ronen Fogel, have primarily conducted microbiological testing, measuring total coliforms and the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli).

“The most recent microbiological testing conducted by the RUBIC Water Testing Laboratory shows that out of eleven sites sampled, four sites showed the presence of E. coli,” said Professor Janice Limson, Director of RUBIC and DSI/NRF Chair in Biotechnology Innovation and Engagement.

The Laboratory was launched this year to support community water testing for bacterial contamination, amongst other water quality indicators. “RUBIC’s water testing will not replace the SANAS-accredited testing done by the Makana Municipality but aims to supplement their efforts,” Professor Limson explained.

More information about the RUBIC Water Testing Laboratory initiative can be obtained from L Madikiza at 046 603 7673, Email: rubicwater@ru.ac.za