What Monitoring Sewage Tells Us About the Coronavirus

Susan Gardner, the Ecosystem Division Director of UNEP, said that “wastewater is a precious resource that the world needs to know how to tap. Not only could it be used to feed crops, but the water in our sewers can act like an early warning system that could alert us when diseases begin to move into urban populations. With the present spread of COVID-19 in the United States, researchers have been trying to investigate new solutions to monitoring the spread of the virus, and many scientists have turned to test wastewater to find indicators of the coronavirus early before symptoms occur on a large scale. Monitoring wastewater has always been important, and in this case, monitoring wastewater can prevent us from the effects of a global outbreak. 

COVID-19 has brought to light the threats that disadvantaged communities face from the lack of basic sanitation and clean water. Communities that have an overall better public health status are less likely to experience the consequences of the virus. Large amounts of wastewater enter the environment, posing risks to both the environment and to humans. Pathogens can spread from the wastewater into human populations and inflict disease. 

How is wastewater relevant to the pandemic?

Countries, such as the U.S., Israel, and Switzerland, have detected traces of COVID-19 in wastewater samples. With this close monitoring of wastewater, scientists and officials can be informed of the status of the infection and take precautionary measures based on the scale it has spread. COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater if RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) linked to the virus is found in the wastewater. CoV-2 RNA concentrations are the leading early indicator of community infection. This is usually found in human feces, which enters wastewater systems. Because symptoms also take so long to form, scientists try to detect the spread of the virus earlier to minimize fatalities. With this knowledge, scientists can then inform health authorities to take certain measures to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak

“Monitoring water resources, including wastewater, has always been very important. This has became even more important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Birguy Lamizana, a UNEP wastewater expert

Unsustainable wastewater management is a great way for bacteria and viruses to spread to the human population. Thus, reusing wastewater, improving sanitation, and implementing wastewater treatment systems are all some possible solutions to protecting lives. Not to mention, due to the draining system, our environment also suffers from a large number of microplastics, microfibers, and plastics entering ecosystems. Additionally, in the future, using wastewater to monitor the spread of diseases is an effective way for pandemics to be tackled before it reaches its full damaging potential.