Wastewater Treatment and Infectious Disease Outbreaks 

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David Jackson

Water and Wastewater Treatment Practice Leader

There are numerous questions in the water and wastewater industry regarding the safety of our workforce who may potentially be exposed to raw wastewater carrying the novel coronavirus. As with any infectious disease outbreak, the industry’s approach to the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, should be to continue safe and effective management of our treatment systems while being cautious and practicing proper safety protocols to protect our professional operators. As Clean Water Professionals, our wastewater operators are adept and trained to handle a number of potential biological and viral threats inherent in raw sewage. The new threats due to the coronavirus offer an additional reminder of best practices.

Currently, evidence suggests that COVID-19, while potentially present in raw wastewater, should be regarded similarly to other pathogens typically present in raw or partially treated wastewater (e.g., adenovirus, Giardia, E. coli, etc.).

Some best practices and guidance can be found through the Water Environment FederationOSHA and the Centers for Disease Control. Each provides guidance for wastewater and sewage workers regarding best practices, recommended Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), standard safety protocols and basic hygiene practices.

Current disinfection practices at water resource recovery facilities, including chlorination, UV disinfection and ozonation are proven to be highly effective at disinfecting and inactivating viruses, including the coronavirus. Proper PPE and safety protocols should be carefully followed by operations and maintenance personnel around raw and partially treated wastewater, especially in areas with higher potential for aerosolization, physical contact with liquid waste or droplets, and areas with poor ventilation. Undigested residuals and Class B and C dewatered biosolids can also contain pathogens. Proper PPE, such as rubber boots, gloves, coveralls, goggles and face masks, should be used appropriately in areas of potential exposure.

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David Jackson, PE, BCEE, is Water and Wastewater Treatment Practice Leader, based in Dallas.