Doctors order tests to verify a suspected diagnosis or simply to confirm we are as well as we feel. The tests reveal a great deal about what is going on inside of us. Given that what’s inside of us can also be found in wastewater, it seems logical that wastewater analysis could reveal telltale signs about our health – and even our habits.
The concept of wastewater analysis is not new. Historically, it has been used to ascertain the extent of illicit drug usage in communities in the UK and Australia. Acting on the data, officials often direct treatment and prevention resources to communities with high drug loads, the highest of which are cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine. An aspiration is to minimize the drug use so the problem does not become widespread.
Other Uses for Wastewater Analysis
Sewage testing has been successfully used as a method for early detection of other diseases, such as polio. A problem currently top-of-mind and acutely reshaping the way we live is COVID-19 and the ease with which it spreads. At the time of this writing, more than 15 million people in the U.S. had been infected with the novel coronavirus and 290,000 plus had succumbed to it. The number of infections and the resultant deaths is growing every day.
A big concern of the medical establishment is asymptomatic spread of COVID-19; that is, people who have the virus but exhibit no symptoms. Feeling fine, many don’t get tested and even more certainly do not feel the need to see a doctor. Despite feeling well, they are “shedding virus,” meaning they are infecting those they encounter on public transportation, as well as in private vehicles, offices, stores, restaurants, homes, and even college dormitories and cafeterias. Since colleges and universities are microcosms of society, let us take a close look at campuses as potential applications of wastewater analysis. What if wastewater analysis was used to identify COVID-19 clusters on college campuses?
College Campus Case Study
Like many campuses, the University of Arizona instituted a hybrid system for getting students back to class. For those who arrived on campus, school officials implemented a set of protocols to keep students safe from COVID-19. Along with testing and tracing, wastewater analysis became an integral part of their COVID-19 mitigation strategy. According to experts, “polymerase chain reaction testing identifies fragments of RNA from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.” The amount of RNA concentration in the wastewater reflects the number of infected people contributing to it. Thus, the university’s strategy consisted of continually assessing RNA levels to identify and monitor COVID-19 infections for each dormitory.
Upon testing dorm sewage in late August 2020, according to Dr. Richard Carmona of UA’s Reentry Task Force, traces of the virus were found in one of the dormitories
– Likins Hall. Two of the 311 residents tested positive for COVID-19. They were immediately isolated and submitted for treatment, according to officials. In this instance, wastewater analysis acted as an early warning detection system. Because of it, the students likely avoided the fate of becoming very sick from the disease. But the impact goes beyond just the two students.
Integration of wastewater analysis in the university’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy potentially saved more than two lives. It also prevented widespread outbreak of the virus, likely saving the lives of many more students, faculty, staff, and even family members. As with the illicit drug use programs in the UK and Australia, the use of a wastewater analysis strategy at the University of Arizona helped identify the presence, in this case, of the novel coronavirus. The outcome was targeted treatment of the infected students and preventing spread to avoid complete shutdown of the university.
What are the advantages of wastewater infectious disease surveillance?
- Sewage testing has been successfully used as a method for early detection of other diseases.
- SARS-CoV-2 can be shed in the feces of individuals with symptomatic or asymptomatic infection; therefore, wastewater surveillance can capture data on both types of infection.
- Nearly 80 percent of United States households are served by municipal sewage collection systems.
- Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 measurements in untreated sewage can provide information on changes in total COVID-19 infection in the contributing community.
- Depending on the frequency of testing, sewage surveillance can be a leading indicator of changes in COVID-19 burden in a community.
- SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection in sewage serves as a COVID-19 indicator that is independent of healthcare-seeking behaviors and access to clinical testing.
Several prominent schools transitioned from in-class or hybrid models to online-only after becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 infections on campus. Notre Dame, Michigan State, North Carolina, and Alabama are just a few. Any established community center, business campus, or industrial plant can benefit from and consider integrating wastewater analysis into their COVID-19 prevention plan.
To implement a wastewater analysis strategy for your college campus, office facility, or community, consult the water quality management experts at Garratt Callahan (G-C). G-C offers Wastewater Testing for SARS-CoV2. Using Real-Time, quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-qPCR), G-C can help you use wastewater as a marker to:
- Measure the prevalence of COVID-19 in communities
- Anticipate outbreaks for risk mitigation
- Warn of future outbreaks G-C has its own EPA-certified laboratory and as your water treatment partner you have access to all of their products and services.