Ebola & Wastewater: Time to Take a Step Back

We know you're concerned, but it's time to put Ebola into perspective.

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Editor's Update: According to an Oct. 17 WEF press release, the CDC is preparing guidance for wastewater sector workers. The guidance, "Interim Guidance for Workers Handling Untreated Sewage from Ebola Cases in the United State," will address basic hygiene practices and personal protective equipment use and disposal actions that should be taken. The CDC states this review could be ready as early as late October. We will keep you updated as soon as we receive more information.

Ebola is a horrible disease. Its arrival on this country’s shores is frightening and is a reason for deep concern for our health care system. Its spread must be prevented.

At the same time, sometimes fear can be worse than the disease. For example: Many people terrified about Ebola are not getting vaccinated against flu, which kills thousands of people every year. Ebola has killed just one person in the United States.

Many people terrified of Ebola are not getting recommended screenings for cancer, which is far more likely to kill them.

Of course, it’s difficult to be logical when we feel a threat from something as dreadful as Ebola that we perceive to be outside our ability to control. In such cases, we have a couple of basic choices. We can panic. Or we can step back, use our powers of reason, look at the facts as best we know them, and act accordingly in our best interests.

Closer to home
Since the Ebola stories broke, we’ve heard operators raise concerns about Ebola in wastewater. Of course, wastewater is known to carry many pathogens that are more contagious than Ebola.

Still, these operators were concerned about whether they might be at risk of getting the disease through contact with wastewater in their facilities. The first such call to TPO magazine came last week from an operator in Albion, Mich.

We’re certainly not going to take lightly a concern such as that from one of our readers. So, rather than simply tell him, “We don’t know the answer,” we went looking for information. A couple of days later, thanks to help from contacts in the industry, we published this item on our website and pushed it out through our email and social media channels.

"Ebola Information Released for Water and Wastewater Utilities"

As I write this, that item still constitutes the best information on the question that has been made available — it came from the Water Environment Research Foundation. Meanwhile, we are told, the U.S. EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working on a joint statement. The essence of our online article is that scientists say Ebola is not a waterborne illness. Spokespeople for the CDC, the World Health Organization and other authorities have said repeatedly that Ebola is spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

Where’s the guarantee?
And still operators send us questions. How great is the risk of catching Ebola from wastewater? Could Ebola infect sewer rats which then spread the disease to people? Can you guarantee 100 percent that operators are safe?

Such questions of course are beyond my expertise. I am certainly not about to dismiss them since I am not the one facing whatever potential threat there may or may not be. I don’t work in treatment plants — I only write about them. So we continue to reach out to authorities looking for the most definitive information we can find. And when we do find it, we will pass it along right away through our online channels.

In the meantime, panic should not be an option. Here is an example of how concern can escalate. I received one message this morning suggesting we take down the article mentioned above. Why? Because is “doesn’t contain any facts, nor does it reference any.”

The commenter went on to report on a call from a small hospital where his company operates an on-site wastewater treatment plant. The hospital had a patient with Ebola-like symptoms, though it turned out the person did not have the disease. A hospital spokesperson wanted to know what to do if another patient came in with similar systems.

The commenter’s response: “Let us know ASAP and we will vacate the facility.” The hospital spokesperson said that was reasonable given that our article said the virus can survive in water for minutes, long enough for vomit or feces from a patient to reach the treatment plant.

That’s a concern I can understand, though I’m not qualified to judge its legitimacy. The commenter went on to question the safety of people working in pump stations, on sewer lines, or in treatment plants immediately next to hospitals and said he would not expose himself or his people to the risk of Ebola “until and unless it is confirmed as non-transmittable via wastewater.”

What proof does it take?
All right then, what exactly does “immediately next to” mean? And what exactly constitutes “confirmed as non-transmittable”? If we let panic take over, do we get to where treatment plant operators in any community with a hospital treating Ebola patients want to vacate their posts?

Perhaps that is stretching the point, but ultimately reason has to take over. I’m an expert neither in wastewater treatment nor in infectious diseases, but here are a few points that seem worth considering:

  • We have been assured by the most knowledgeable people that Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with body fluids — not through the air, not by water, not by passing someone on the street. We received similar assurances about the AIDS virus — that it is spread by highly specific mechanisms. Those assurances proved to be true.
  • Wastewater is loaded with pathogens that are known to survive in and be spread through water. Operators face exposure to these pathogens every day while taking normal precautions, such as wearing appropriate protective clothing and equipment. We do not see outbreaks of Giardia, cholera or other diseases among operators. Apparently, then, those daily protections work. Would they not also work against a disease that scientists agree is NOT waterborne?
  • In the extreme (and one hopes highly unlikely) case of operators leaving their posts in fear of Ebola, what would happen if treatment plants ceased to function? One likely outcome would be an outbreak of waterborne diseases and untold misery.

I welcome your comments on any of the above, as well as questions we might pass along to qualified authorities, ordinary precautions you take to protect against wastewater pathogens, questions you have received from people in your community, or anything relevant to this topic. In the meantime, wear your seat belt, schedule your colonoscopy or mammogram, and get your flu shot.

You can contact me at editor@tpomag.com.


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