Concentrations of faecal coliforms and Escherichia coli in environmental waters have historically been used to establish recreational water quality standards. When these bacteria are used as indices of water quality, it is assumed that there are no significant environmental sources of these bacteria which are unrelated to direct faecal contamination. However, we have previously reported that in tropical island environments such as in Hawaii, these faecal indicators are consistently found at high concentrations in all streams and the source of these faecal bacteria is the soil. To become so well established in soil we hypothesized that these faecal bacteria must have the ability to multiply in the natural soil environment at ambient temperature (23–25°C). Three lines of evidence support this hypothesis: (1) E. coli was shown to grow on 10% soil extract agar, (2) populations of faecal coliforms and E. coli from sewage were shown to immediately increase by about three logs when simple nutrients (glucose and salts) were added to natural soil and (3) faecal coliforms and E. coli increased by two logs within 24 h when a minimal amount of sewage was added to cobalt-irradiated soil. These results indicate that tropical soil environments provide sufficient means to support the growth of faecal coliforms and E. coli. However, under natural soil conditions, indigenous soil microorganisms are much more efficient in obtaining nutrients and we hypothesize that faecal bacteria grow sporadically in response to available nutrients.

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