The strain of E. coli found at high levels in Red Hill Creek is likely the strain that's in everyone's gastrointestinal tract, says a McMaster University expert. But that doesn't make it healthy.

Prof. Brian Coombes studies pathogenic bacteria and its effect on humans. While he has not seen the test results, he said the strain found at alarming levels in Red Hill Creek is likely not lethal.

"As far as being an immediate public health concern, it's not very likely to be an imminent threat to humans," he said. "But it does highlight an infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed."

Environment Hamilton called attention to the creek this month when it presented the results of its citizen-driven Pipewatch program. Volunteer pipe watchers found algae, material flushed down toilets and, at times, a pungent stench.

The organization also analyzed eight water samples, which showed levels of E. coli and total coliform several times greater than the provincial standard. It tested for E. coli in general and not to identify a specific strain.

The highest area for E. coli was where the Red Hill Valley Parkway crosses over Barton Street East. Testing there showed 28,000 E. coli per 100 ml of water. That's 280 times the provincial recreational limit of 100, and higher than the city's limit of 2,400.

It also found high levels of total coliform at every testing site.

While there are a lot of unknowns, "I wouldn't want my kids to be playing in that water at the moment," Coombes said. Cold weather notwithstanding, "I would avoid it until the source is identified and some remediation can happen."

Even if the E. coli strain is not the toxic 0157H7 that killed residents in Walkerton, E. coli is an unpredictable bacteria, and high levels of it should be remedied, Coombes said.

"If you find new E. coli out in the wild, it's very difficult to know if it's going to be pathogenic to humans until someone gets sick from it," he said. "E. coli is really a moving target."

The organization plans to present the results at a future board of health meeting, said Katie Stiel, project manager with Environment Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the Pipewatch program temporarily ends this month because the grant that funds it runs out, she said. It will resume in May to do more sampling and to study certain species of invertebrates.

"Their presence and the types we'll gather will indicate the health of the stream," she said.

The results were presented at a public meeting Monday evening that drew about 60 people.