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New Rapid Test Aims to Get Swimmers Back in NYS Park Waters Faster

It’s a beautiful mid-June Tuesday morning, and Ruth Richardson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, is at the swim beach at Buttermilk Falls State Park with a few students, enjoying the reward for surviving a seemingly endless Ithaca, NY winter.

But no, the group is not swimming – they are testing a new water monitoring technology that, if approved by New York state and federal authorities, could drastically reduce the time state park swim areas must close when water is suspected of being unswimmable.

How drastic a reduction? From 24-30 hours down to 90 minutes or less.

“We were really excited to hear about the scope of [Richardson’s] work and what it could mean. The implications for parks would be pretty great,” said James Brophy, Buttermilk Falls park manager.

A chance meeting with a former graduate student led to Richardson connecting with Biomeme Inc., a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based biotechnology device maker. Richardson and her group are testing Biomeme’s DNA detector, the two3TM, for possible use as a rapid water-testing device for state park swim beaches.

The device checks for fecal indicator bacteria, which aren’t themselves pathogens but could indicate the presence of any of a number of pathogens. The ones Richardson is interested in are those that affect the gastrointestinal tract.

“We go and sample the water and process it right there in the park,” said Richardson, who is also a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “And 45 minutes later, the machine will give you an answer. Start to finish, it’s approximately an hour to your answer, so you could have relevant information before you open the beach.”

In addition to Buttermilk Falls, Richardson and her students have been conducting tests at Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca, and they are planning trips to Long Island and to western New York to conduct remote field testing of the Biomeme device.

The Biomeme device wasn’t designed specifically for swim water testing, but Richardson saw it as a solution to a frequent inconvenience at many of New York’s 64 state parks with swim beaches: closure of beaches due to water quality.

According to Brophy, the state conducts weekly testing of water at all of its swim areas. Water samples are sent off to a lab and the minimum time before the park has an answer is 24 hours, though it often is more, Brophy said. And if after 24 hours there’s another positive E. coli test, the 24-hour clock starts all over again.

Beaches close before test results are announced if there is a predicted exceedance of E. coli colonies (more than 235 per 100 ml), due either to environmental conditions or more than 0.7 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, which can lead to fouling due to runoff. “We are always going to err on the side of caution,” Brophy said.

A big goal for this summertime project, Richardson said, is validation of her quick-test system.

“The beaches are still doing their normal sampling and bacteria analysis, they send it away to a lab for testing – that’s the gold standard, even though it’s antiquated,” Richardson said. “And so we’re going to be right next to them getting water samples, and seeing what results we get and to see whether they agree.”

Currently, the Biomeme device is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the company’s website. If Richardson’s testing goes well, the next step could be more parallel testing with current methods to further validate the Biomeme device’s effectiveness.

Richardson ran a pilot test last fall, then secured funding from the Cornell-based New York State Water Resources Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct more testing this summer. She also noted that the Atkinson Center’s Academic Venture Fund supported early studies in this area.

It’s a project that could have a major impact on summer fun in New York state, a fact that’s appealing to team member Cristina Fernandez-Baca, Ph.D. ’18.

“Recreational waters are super-important and everybody enjoys them,” she said, “so what we’re doing is important.”

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