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Do free-living amoebae in treated drinking water systems present an emerging health risk?

There is an expanding body of evidence that free-living amoebae (FLA) increase both the numbers and virulence of water-based, human-pathogenic, amoeba-resisting microorganisms (ARM). Legionella spp., Mycobacterium spp., and other opportunistic human pathogens are known to be both ARM and also the etiologic agents of potentially fatal human lung infections. However, comparatively little is known about the FLA that may facilitate ARM growth in drinking water. This review examines the available literature on FLA in treated drinking water systems; in total 26 studies from 18 different countries. FLA were reported to breakthrough the water treatment barrier and enter distribution systems, in addition to the expected post-treatment system ingress. Once in the distribution system there is evidence of FLA colonization and regrowth especially in reservoirs and in-premise plumbing storage tanks. At the point of use the average FLA detection rate was 45% but highly variable (n = 16, σ = 31) due to both differences in both assay methods and the type of water systems examined. This review reveals that FLA are consistently detected in treated drinking water systems around the world and present a yet unquantified emerging health risk. However, more research is urgently required before accurate risks assessments can be undertaken to assess the impacts on human health, in households and institutions, due to exposure to FLA facilitated pathogenic ARM.

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