Innovation only really exists once it is actually applied

Hilde Prummel - Director of Waterlaboratorium Noord

In 1998, WLN began research in which standard DNA of potentially harmful bacteria is used to detect these bacteria in drinking water. The outbreak of Legionella in Bovenkarspel, the Netherlands, the following year gave an additional boost. It created a huge need for rapid measurements. “Demand from the field helps innovation,” notes Prummel, who worked for Arcadis before she moved to WLN.

For some five years now it has been possible, with the help of DNA/RNA comparisons, to determine within four hours whether water contains E. coli or enterococcus bacteria. Prummel: “But innovation only really exists once it is actually applied.” This requires more than just smart engineering.

Sharing knowledge for a better result

The law still requires water samples, with a membrane filter on a nutrient plate, to be put into an incubator for 12 to 48 hours. The water is subsequently tested for the presence of E. coli and enterococcus bacteria. “After a pipe burst or a repair you have to wait at least 48 hours before the pipe can be used again – before people can drink the water again or take a shower.”

A faster technique has been available for years, so what is the hold-up?
Knowledge sharing is essential in order to upscale innovations, even though it slows things down, says Prummel. WLN shared the technique with the other Dutch drinking water laboratories two years ago. The technique has been further tested and refined. “We had a head start on this topic, but you have to mark time. Everyone has their own knowledge and their individual hobbyhorses, and it takes time to reach compromises. But the final result is better.

Springboard to the world

The technique has now been described in detail and validated: the test results are the same in all laboratories. It was worth the wait, says Prummel. Once the technique has been accepted by the government, the sector wants an official NEN standard. “An NEN standardization process takes around two years. But once it has been standardized, the technique can be used around the world.” Embedding in legislation, including the necessary standardization, is crucial. “The absence of standardization would mean a fatal blow to innovative forces, certainly regarding water quality. When public health is at stake, everyone is wary of applying innovation.

In the meantime, Dutch specialists in microbiology continue to be active in international water forums and at meetings of standardization bodies worldwide. This cuts both ways. International support is created for techniques developed in the Netherlands. In addition, it is possible to respond in a timely fashion to developments elsewhere that could be interesting for the Netherlands. Prummel: “The Dutch drinking water sector is a leader for quality and we want to keep it that way.

View here the projects and standardization initiatives related to water.