Wastewater and Disease: How Can You Stay Safe?

As a wastewater worker, you’re on the front line of the fight against communicable disease. How do you avoid illness? Here’s what WHO’s Dr. Adrianus Vlugman, had to say at this year’s WWETT Show.
Wastewater and Disease: How Can You Stay Safe?

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The recent outbreak of measles continues to cause alarm. Before that, Ebola led off national news programs in the United States. Communicable disease is serious business, especially in the wastewater trades, and according to leading experts, the best solution lies in prevention.

Dr. Adrianus Vlugman, the senior advisor on water, sanitation and environmental health at the World Health Organization, gave the final presentation at the 2015 Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis Feb. 26. He spoke to attendees on the transfer of communicable disease in water and wastewater, saying employees who handle water and wastewater need to take the same precautions as hospital personnel.

“All people working in water and wastewater sanitation are primary health care workers,” he said. “It’s right in the word itself. Sanitas is the Latin word for health.”

U.S. risks
Although U.S. wastewater systems are typically treated with an ample amount of chlorine to create a sanitary end product, Vlugman noted municipalities that use outdated mains to transport water and wastewater to treatment facilities are more susceptible to outbreaks should an accident occur.

“There are 240,000 main breaks that occur yearly in the U.S., exposing both users and sanitation workers to raw sewage,” Vlugman said. “That’s not to mention the 15-plus million households in this country that have unregulated private wells or discharge untreated sewage. This country’s susceptibility to communicable disease transmitted through water or wastewater is certainly not as high as the third world, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be accounted for.”

Vlugman described the risk of communicable disease contraction by wastewater operators as probability plus impact. Because they have an increased possibility of direct contact with waterborne pathogens, WHO advises operators adhere to several preventative measures, including sound engineering of the wastewater transport system, adjustment of personal and/or professional behavior and availability of appropriate safety equipment. As for reducing the risk of potential disease, operators must be proactive, which means staying current on vaccines and adopting healthy lifestyles.

“The healthier an operator is, the better chance his body will have of fighting off a serious disease,” Vlugman said. “Another key is increasing awareness of the threats in the waste industry and openly discussing the preventive measures. You cannot be macho about procedures.”

The Ebola threat
Although Ebola media coverage has waned in recent months, Vlugman was quick to point out that WHO continues to closely monitor its spread. The deadly disease, which originated decades ago in the African bush, spreads through unprotected contact with contaminated medical equipment and blood. The virus isn’t airborne, foodborne or waterborne. He said the University of North Carolina is currently researching how long the virus can remain active in contaminated blood outside a host, and if contaminated blood discharged through plumbing or sewer systems poses a risk. Until those questions are answered, he advises workers in direct proximity to potential infection exercise extreme caution.

“Certainly plumbers in a hospital treating Ebola patients and technicians performing sewer maintenance on active lines or construction workers who repair or replace lines connected to those hospitals should take additional precaution,” he said. “Unfortunately it is right now impossible to quantify the occupational risks of those workers.”

Precautions include using goggles, a face shield, waterproof gloves, coveralls and rubber boots. Workers should thoroughly wash with soap and water before and after contact with sewage, take steps to avoid direct sewage contact with body sensory areas or open sores, and remove and launder soiled clothes and shoes immediately after contact. Vlugman said many precautions should be common sense in the wastewater industry.

“I’m not telling any of you things you don’t already know,” he says. “If you take anything away from this presentation, take the need to be diligent about safety. All it can take sometimes is one slip.”


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