Fingerprinting sources of bacterial input into small residential watersheds: Fate of fluorescent whitening agents

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The presence of fecal coliform bacteria in many watersheds is often linked to septic system effluent. Fluorescent whitening agents (FWA) are part of most laundry detergent formulations and previously have been used for fingerprinting anthropogenic sewage waters. This study was carried out to investigate the fate of FWA in spring water downstream from a well-monitored septic system in a small forest watershed. Samples for FWA were collected at the spring and along the flow path downstream and analyzed fluorometrically. Selected sampling events were scheduled at night and daytime and after rainstorms to investigate possible changes in the spring water composition. In addition, reference fluorescence spectra were prepared for humic and tannic acid and for the laundry detergent used exclusively in the household discharging into the test septic system. The results indicate that FWA can be detected in spring water, but interference with increasing humic acid concentration downstream limits the fingerprinting value of the method to the vicinity of the spring. Also, sampling for FWA after rainstorms only yielded results if at least 4 days had passed. Otherwise, dissolved organic substances transported into the spring water interfered with the FWA spectrum. No significant differences between night and daytime sampling were found. Overall, the method, as used at this study site, is of limited value for fingerprinting FWA in natural waters.

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Environmental Geology