Assessment of Health Risks associated with Viruses in Groundwater Supplies

Principal Investigator - Pierre Payment, Professeur, Centre INRS- Institut Armand-Frappier, Institut national de la recherche sc, 2005 - 2007

Assessment of Health Risks associated with Viruses in Groundwater Supplies


Maintaining safe and effective treatment processes remains a primary focus for drinking water providers. Yet, 35 per cent of diarrheal illnesses have been traced to drinking tap water that has met all safety requirements. While groundwater generally offers a well-protected source of drinking water, contaminants can be transported into an aquifer.

While detecting bacterial contaminants or measuring levels of regulated chemicals is relatively easy and routinely done, current test indicators do not detect viruses or parasites, and these continue to be the source of numerous waterborne outbreaks.  This project, led by Dr. Pierre Payment, aimed to provide partners with data for regulatory purposes and risk evaluation.


Collected samples were used to compare developing technologies to detect and identify viruses and indicators in drinking water.

To achieve this goal, several municipal drinking groundwater sites in Ontario, Québec, and Alberta were assessed for:

  1. The presence of a number of different microorganisms
  2. The value of a various bacteriological indicators
  3. Complementary environmental, hydrogeological and physico-chemical data
  4. The sensitivity of tests developed for microbial detection and identification
  5. The risk level associated with the presence of viruses in groundwater

The project found that in the groundwater tested, health risks to populations were extremely low because of the rare occurrence of viruses in untreated waters and the proper treatment of contaminated supplies. Results also found that total coliforms were the best parameter for microbial groundwater quality, as their presence was indicative of viruses.


The knowledge generated by this project was widely transferred in several ways:

  • Via the preparation of a substantial report distributed to participating water utilities, the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water, the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada and the provincial Ministries of Environment and Health.
  • Compilation of data on virus occurrence in Alberta, Québec and Ontario, the first time such information has been gathered in Canada.
  • Presentation of the results at Provincial, National and International conferences and publications in peer-reviewed and local professional association journals.
  • Through highly qualified personnel, for example the transfer of methods and knowledge from technical staff to graduate students and other participants.


  • Payment P. et  A. Locas. 2011. Pathogens in water: value and limits of correlation with microbial indicators. Groundwater 49(1): 4 – 11
  • Locas, A., C. Barthe, A.B. Margolin, P. Payment. 2008. Groundwater microbiological quality in Canadian drinking water municipal wells. Can. J. Microbiology 54: 472-478
  • Locas, A., C. Barthe, B. Barbeau, A. Carrière, P. Payment. 2007. Virus occurrence in municipal groundwater sources in Quebec, Canada. Can. J. Microbiology 53(6): 688-694.


  • Increased understanding on the occurrence and potential risks associated with viruses in groundwater.
  • As such, federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, as well as public health authorities, now have access to data on the occurrence and potential risks associated with viruses in groundwater.
  • The project data provide insight into the actions required to reduce the impacts of microbial contaminants in groundwater on the population, thereby significantly reducing risks to public health.
  • The data will benefit regulatory agencies through an increased understanding of population risks, which will aid in identifying adequate measures to protect public health, such as new regulations or treatment requirements.

Research Team

  • Pierre Payment, Professeur, INRS – Institut Armand-Frappier
  • Benoit Barbeau, École Polytechnique de Montréal
  • Richard Villemur, INRS – Institut Armand-Frappier
  • Robert Chapuis, École Polytechnique de Montréal
  • René Therrien, Université Laval
  • Aaron Margolin, University of New Hampshire


  • Warnex
  • Ontario Ministry of Environment
  • Ministère de l’Agriculture du Québec
  • Ministère de l’Environnement du Québec
  • Health Canada