Risk assessment of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in water

Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2009:201:71-115. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4419-0032-6_3.


P. aeruginosa is part of a large group of free-living bacteria that are ubiquitous in the environment. This organism is often found in natural waters such as lakes and rivers in concentrations of 10/100 mL to >1,000/100 mL. However, it is not often found in drinking water. Usually it is found in 2% of samples, or less, and at concentrations up to 2,300 mL(-1) (Allen and Geldreich 1975) or more often at 3-4 CFU/mL. Its occurrence in drinking water is probably related more to its ability to colonize biofilms in plumbing fixtures (i.e., faucets, showerheads, etc.) than its presence in the distribution system or treated drinking water. P. aeruginosa can survive in deionized or distilled water (van der Jooij et al. 1982; Warburton et al. 1994). Hence, it may be found in low nutrient or oligotrophic environments, as well as in high nutrient environments such as in sewage and in the human body. P. aeruginosa can cause a wide range of infections, and is a leading cause of illness in immunocompromised individuals. In particular, it can be a serious pathogen in hospitals (Dembry et al. 1998). It can cause endocarditis, osteomyelitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal infections, and meningitis, and is a leading cause of septicemia. P. aeruginosa is also a major cause of folliculitis and ear infections acquired by exposure to recreational waters containing the bacterium. In addition, it has been recognized as a serious cause of keratitis, especially in patients wearing contact lenses. P. aeruginosa is also a major pathogen in burn and cystic fibrosis (CF) patients and causes a high mortality rate in both populations (MOlina et al. 1991; Pollack 1995). P. aeruginosa is frequently found in whirlpools and hot tubs, sometimes in 94-100% of those tested at concenrations of <1 to 2,400 CFU/mL. The high concentrations found probably result from the relatively high temperatures of whirlpools, which favor the growth of P. aeruginosa, and the aeration which also enhances its growth. The organism is usually found in whirlpools when the chlorine concentrations are low, but it has been isolated even in the presence of 3.00 ppm residual free chlorine (Price and Ahearn 1988). Many outbreaks of folliculitis and ear infections have been reportedly associated with the use of whirlpools and hot tubs that contain P. aeruginosa (Ratnam et al. 1986). Outbreaks have also been reported from exposure to P. aeruginosa in swimming pools and water slides. Although P. aeruginosa has a reputation for being resistant to disinfection, most studies show that it does not exhibit any marked resistance to the disinfectants used to treat drinking water such as chlorine, chloramines, ozone, or iodine. One author, however, did find it to be slightly more resistant to UV disinfection than most other bacteria (Wolfe 1990). Although much has been written about biofilms in the drinking water industry, very little has been reported regarding the role of P. aeruginosa in biofilms. Tap water appears to be a significant route of transmission in hospitals, from colonization of plumbing fixtures. It is still not clear if the colonization results from the water in the distribution system, or personnel use within the hospital. Infections and colonization can be significantly reduced by placement of filters on the water taps. The oral dose of P. aeruginosa required to establish colonization in a healthy subject is high (George et al. 1989a). During dose-response studies, even when subjects (mice or humans) were colonized via ingestion, there was no evidence of disease. P. aeruginosa administered by the aerosol route at levels of 10(7) cells did cause disease symptoms in mice, and was lethal in aerosolized doses of 10(9) cells. Aerosol dose-response studies have not been undertaken with human subjects. Human health risks associated with exposure to P. aeruginosa via drinking water ingestion were estimated using a four-step risk assessment approach. The risk of colonization from ingesting P. aeruginosa in drinking water is low. The risk is slightly higher if the subject is taking an antibiotic resisted by P. aeruginosa. The fact that individuals on ampicillin are more susceptible to Pseudomonas gastrointestinal infection probably results from suppression of normal intestinal flora, which would allow Pseudomonas to colonize. The process of estimating risk was significantly constrained because of the absence of specific (quantitative) occurrence data for Pseudomonas. Sensitivity analysis shows that the greatest source of variability/uncertainty in the risk assessment is from the density distribution in the exposure rather than the dose-response or water consumption distributions. In summary, two routes appear to carry the greatest health risks from contacting water contaminated with P. aeruginosa (1) skin exposure in hot tubs and (2) lung exposure from inhaling aerosols.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteremia / etiology
  • Biofilms
  • Burns / microbiology
  • Cross Infection / etiology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / etiology
  • Humans
  • Pneumonia, Bacterial / etiology
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / isolation & purification
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / pathogenicity*
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Skin Diseases, Bacterial / etiology
  • Water Microbiology*
  • Water Supply / standards