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Risk of COVID-19 transmission through wastewater

‘This is likely to be a problem in areas without adequate sanitation’

EVANSTON, Ill. — Although the novel coronavirus has been detected in wastewater, researchers have been unsure of the transmission risks.

Now, two Northwestern University water experts say the risks of waterborne transmission are higher than previously believed. The risks are only significant, however, in areas without adequate wastewater infrastructure.

Aaron Packman is a professor of civil and environmental engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and the director of Northwestern’s Center for Water Research. An expert on the dynamics of water systems and waterborne disease transmission, Packman can discuss how the novel coronavirus-contaminated water can be disinfected.

Packman can be contacted directly at a-packman@northwestern.edu or 224-420-2137 (mobile).

Quote from Professor Packman:

"New information on COVID-19 indicates that the virus infects the human GI tract and is excreted into sewage. Our assessments indicate that there is a risk of waterborne transmission of the coronavirus. Disinfection will kill the virus in water, but we should carefully examine our wastewater systems to ensure that there is minimal public exposure to untreated wastewater. This is likely to be a problem in areas that do not have adequate sanitation and water treatment, particularly parts of the world that do not have good water infrastructure."

George Wells is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in McCormick. An expert on wastewater treatment and environmental microbiology, Wells can discuss wastewater monitoring and the effectiveness of U.S. wastewater treatment systems against the novel coronavirus.

Wells can be contacted directly at george.wells@northwestern.edu.

Quote from Professor Wells:

“Wastewater is an integrator of health signals across a community. Routine surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater may provide a rapid and inexpensive means to track progression of the pandemic, and may also be useful as an early warning signal for reemergence in the future. Wastewater epidemiology is a new field, but it has great promise as a complement to person by person testing, which is much more expensive and laborious. 

“Research is still limited, but conventional municipal wastewater treatment plants that include disinfection (as is the norm in the United States) are likely effective at inactivating SARS-CoV-2. A greater concern from a public health standpoint is release of untreated or partially treated wastewater."