SARS-CoV-2, aka COVID-19 or Coronavirus, may have a direct impact on an aspect of environmental monitoring.

Specifically, there have been concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in wastewater.  As someone who spent my early years in the environmental field literally “in” sanitary sewers collecting data and monitoring flow, this caught my attention.  Few give any thought (and why should they?) to what happens after the toilet is flushed or when water drains from the sink, bathtub, or laundry tub.  I’ll spare you the details, but whatever we put down the drain travels to the sewers and ends up at the local publicly-owned treatment works (assuming you have a municipal sewer and not a septic system).

I can also tell you that, despite best efforts and personal protective equipment (which was rudimentary when I started), it was difficult to completely avoid exposure to the samples I was collecting.  Anytime you have to enter a sewer, there are risks of exposure, especially to aerosols from the discharge.

COVID-19 May be Spread by Wastewater

Reports about whether wastewater is a potential threat to spread the virus vary.  For example, in August 2020, Nature Sustainability wrote, in part, “Investigation of a SARS-CoV-1 outbreak within an apartment building during the 2003 pandemic indicated that the virus can spread via wastewater systems.  It was suggested that the SARS-CoV-1 infection occurred through respiration of aerosols created by toilet flushing or faulty plumbing systems.  Similar to SARS-CoV-1, RNA of the newly emerged SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in stool samples as well as wastewater. Therefore, it has been postulated that wastewater, a sustainable source of freshwater, could be an indirect infection pathway during SARS-CoVs outbreaks.”

Wastewater is a possible exposure route to COVID-19 (Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash).

Also in August 2020, Medical Xpress wrote, “Wastewater containing coronaviruses may be a serious threat, according to a new, global study led by researchers from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).”

They went on to say, “Wastewater treatment plants need to upgrade their treatment protocols and in the near future also advance toward tertiary treatment through micro- and ultra-filtration membranes, which successfully remove viruses.”

COVID-19 Unlikely to Spread from Wastewater

Offering a more reassuring note, the United States Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently stated, “…ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in untreated wastewater.  While data are limited, there is little evidence of infectious virus in wastewater, and no information to date that anyone has become sick with COVID-19 because of exposure to wastewater.  At this time, the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through properly designed and maintained sewerage systems is thought to be low.”

Earlier this year, the CDC stated, “Standard practices associated with wastewater treatment plant operations should be sufficient to protect wastewater workers from the virus that causes COVID-19.  These standard practices can include engineering and administrative controls, hygiene precautions, specific safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) normally required when handling untreated wastewater.  No additional COVID-19–specific protections are recommended for workers involved in wastewater management, including those at wastewater treatment facilities.”

It’s not too surprising that we are seeing conflicting professional opinions on COVID-19 from wastewater.  What we knew for sure in January about COVID-19 is a far cry from what we know now.

For anyone involved in sampling wastewater and other environmental media, I think an extra measure of caution and PPE would seem to be a prudent exercise.

If you have any questions about environmental issues or need assistance, you can reach me at 248-932-0228, Ext. 125.

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