New Research: Is COVID-19 in Wastewater?

New Research: Is COVID-19 in Wastewater?

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New studies highlight the fact that it is essential for those in the industry to commit to wearing PPE to protect themselves.

1. The coronavirus has been detected in wastewater in the Netherlands, according to National Institute for Public Health and the Environment research. The first sample containing the virus was taken four days after the first person in the Netherlands tested positive for COVID-19.

2. New research from China indicates that COVID-19 is also spread by fecal-oral transmission, not just by respiratory droplets or environmental contact. Key findings of the study indicate:

  • A significant portion of COVID-19 patients experience diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal discomfort before the onset of respiratory symptoms.
  • Viral RNA is detectable in fecal samples from suspected cases, indicating that the virus sheds into the stool.
  • Viral gastrointestinal infection and potential fecal-oral transmission can last even after viral clearance from the respiratory tract.

Of the 73 people studied, 53% had the virus RNDA in their fecal matter; 23% (17 people) remained positive even after respiratory samples tested negative.

3. A recent paper, “First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States,” in the New England Journal of Medicine also confirmed the virus RNA detection in feces of the first person in the U.S. with documented COVID-19.

Still to date there has not been confirmation of the illness being spread through wastewater.  Detection of viruses by molecular techniques provides no indication that the virus is infectious. It remains to be seen if infectious virus particles are excreted in patients' feces and urine, and if so, how well the viruses are able to survive in wastewater. 

Previous studies investigating persistence of coronavirus surrogates and SARS in wastewater highlight that in the absence of disinfection, the virus can survive in wastewater from hours to days.

Is Tap Water Safe to Drink?

The simple answer is yes. The virus that causes COVID-19 is not spread through drinking water, and the World Health Organization says it has not been detected in any water supplies. Conventional water treatment removes or inactivates the virus. There is no need to buy bottled water. 

Material Shortages

Some parts of the US have had issues related to access to materials such as aggregate and sand due to reduce hours at quarries/pits. The field of construction is considered essential in most states, but exactly what is allowed varies. Construction related to septic systems should be considered essential including activities like septic tank manufacturing. Challenges in getting materials should be brought to your state-level septic program administration.

Lack of PPE for Wastewater Professionals

The World Health Organization has warned that severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment – caused by rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse – is putting lives at risk from the new coronavirus and its infectious diseases. Despite recent government actions, experts and medical professionals warn that the protective equipment shortage is far from resolved. 

The problem is about both supply and demand. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, China made half of the world’s facemasks. When the outbreak took off there, China started to use its supply and hoard what remained. This problem has only spread since, as more and more countries hoard whatever medical supplies they can get — with some, like Germany, even banning most PPE exports. So as demand increased due to COVID-19 — not just from health care workers but from a general public increasingly scared of infection — there was less supply to go around.

For those in the wastewater world, proper PPE is critical to reducing your risk.

More Information

NOWRA is hosting a webinar, Protecting Yourself During a Pandemic, which will provide an overview of specific biological hazards to workers in the onsite wastewater industry, and allow attendees to ask questions about their concerns. 

The webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, April 8 at 10 a.m. PDT. Click here for more information on the webinar.

About the author   
Sara Heger, Ph.D., is an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is education chair of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, and she serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Ask Heger questions about septic system maintenance and operation by sending an email to


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