By Rasha Maal-Bared, Senior Microbiologist at EPCOR and Chair of WEF’s Waterborne Infectious Disease Outbreak Control Subcommittee (WIDOC)
- Currently there is no evidence that coronavirus survives the disinfection processes for drinking water and wastewater treatment.
- No coronavirus-specific protections are recommended for employees involved in wastewater management beyond the standard safety practices.
- The water sector continues following guidance from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local health authorities.
During these challenging times, we want to be clear about what we know about coronavirus and water treatment. The obligations of the drinking water and wastewater treatment sector to the public and our workforce is not put on hold when new contaminants entering our systems come with unknowns. We follow the best science available and make decisions to protect public and occupational health.
In the absence of coronavirus-specific information, public health authorities, environmental protection agencies, and water organizations rely on what is known about coronavirus surrogates (e.g., SARS, human and animal coronaviruses) to assess and manage risk in a precautionary manner.
Organizations like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued guidance based on the assumption that coronavirus, much like SARS, could potentially survive in water, despite not yet being found as a live virus in wastewater or surface water.
While research on coronavirus surrogates and tougher to kill viruses has shown that coronavirus has the potential to remain viable in aquatic environments for hours to days, many of these studies also have shown that water and wastewater disinfection practices (chlorine/chloramine, peracetic acid, or ultraviolet irradiation) protect public health.
Also, coronavirus seems to be more susceptible to disinfectants than the bacteria, such as E. coli, that we monitor to demonstrate water safety for consumers. Utilities regularly monitor these indicator organisms and disinfectant doses to ensure we are treating water effectively to protect public health.
Our water workforce –operators, maintenance personnel, utility crews, laboratory technicians, collection system workers, and custodial staff – all work in the proximity of human wastewater every day. This is wastewater contains pathogens such as adenovirus, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium, Hepatitis A virus, and more. The water sector has become extremely diligent when it comes to engineered and administrative controls, personal protective equipment, and good hygiene practices because we want to keep our crews safe, not just during the coronavirus outbreak but every day. Considering our heightened awareness and protective measures when it comes to working with wastewater every day, it makes sense that the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has stated that no additional personal protective equipment is necessary to protect our staff from coronavirus.
The water utility sector is here to make sure your water keeps flowing and stays safe, and that you can wash your hands without fearing coronavirus. We will continue to rely on science as our guide and share the current knowledge with you.