LIHUE — Sniffer dogs are used by police departments to find illegal drugs and explosives, contraband electronics and even missing people.
They’re finding invasive Chilean needle grass in New Zealand and quagga mussels on boats in California, and on Kauai, their skills are being used to find human sewage in the water.
“It’s not the definitive test, but it’s the initial screening test,” said Carl Berg, head of Kauai Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force, which is using the company Environmental Canine’s “Sniff and Test” services.
Headquartered in Maine, Environmental Canine was created in 2009 as a way to put sewage-sniffing dogs on the streets throughout the nation to identify and track human sewage pollution to the source.
In October and November, Berg and his BWTF associates collected 17 water samples from eight streams and sent them to Environmental Canine.
The first set of samples was collected on Oct. 30, and Environmental Canine received them on Nov. 1. They were scent tested by two dogs — Sable and Remi — on Nov. 3.
A second set of samples was collected on Nov. 20 and 21, shipped Nov. 21, received Nov. 24 and scent tested on Nov. 27.
“What I tested thoroughly was Waiopili Stream at Maha’uepu and 79 percent of the tests said human sewage,” Berg said.
Three samples were collected at Waiopili stream mouth in October and all samples tested positive for human sewage by both dogs. Another three samples were collected from that place in November and on re-testing, two of the samples tested positive by both dogs and one tested negative.
Waikomo stream was another target for Berg, and 40 percent of those tests were returned positive for human sewage.
Testing at Waikomo stream involved three samples collected in October and shipped to the sniff lab. Two of the samples tested negative by both dogs and one tested positive. Two more samples were collected at that site in November and one tested positive by both dogs and one tested negative by both dogs.
“They’re not telling us how much of the water is sewage,” Berg said. “It’s a plus or minus test. But if I get a plus response 40 percent of the time, that means it’s real. They’re not telling me a percentage, the dogs are just saying there is human sewage there.”
In the November round of testing, Berg expanded his testing area to include Niumalu, Anahola, Moloa’a, Hanamaulu and Nawiliwili. One sample was collected from Puali estuary at Niumalu County Beach Park and tested positive by both dogs.
One sample was collected at each of the stream mouths in Anahola, Moloa’a, Hanamaulu and Nawiliwili in November, and all samples tested negative by both dogs.
Lastly, Berg tested a sample of reclaimed sewage water in a golf course pond in October. It tested negative by both dogs.
The goal of all this testing, Berg said, is to corroborate data and conclusions drawn from Department of Health research dating back to 2013, when the department started testing places at Maha’ulepu.
Those tests have continued through 2016, when the department carried out a mission to do PhyloChip testing, which came by way of a $15,000 contract. The technique identifies specific DNA from bacteria and should divulge whether the pathogens are human-originated or not.
“They started sampling in 2016 and did all these tests at Berkeley and we haven’t heard from them. They say the report will be out soon,” Berg said. “We’re offering this now to DOH and all I’m saying is your earlier tests were right. We’re saying it’s there and we’re still finding positive results. “
Representatives from DOH didn’t give an estimated release date for the PhyloChip results, and said the canine sniffing tests “may have benefits to identify unknown sites where further investigations may be warranted.”
“However, testing results would still need to be confirmed by more definitive — for now — source tracking methods recommended by the EPA, such as DNA analysis,” said Anna Koethe, public health information coordinator for DOH.
The department acknowledges that canine scent detection has been used in the past to detect human waste contamination, but really is an indication of where further testing is needed.
“We are not dismissing the test,” Koethe said. “In this instance on Kauai, we have already identified the area in question for further examination, conducted additional source tracking tests, and are currently awaiting the results.”