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Sewage Could Become Next Virus Surveillance Method, EPA Says

May 27, 2020, 7:46 PM

Raw sewage could be a new element of states’ coronavirus surveillance efforts once the EPA completes a new research pilot project.

The Environmental Protection Agency is testing sewage as a potential indicator of the number of symptomatic and asymptomatic coronavirus cases across entire communities.

The agency’s six-month pilot project, in conjunction with the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, would contribute to Ohio’s growing surveillance network for virus cases, Jay Garland, senior scientist in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said in an agency webinar Wednesday.

The EPA is looking to develop a coronavirus test method over the next four to six weeks, while simultaneously starting the pilot project during that time, Garland said. The results will “help target testing and hopefully inform public health decisions,” he said.

The tests will require knowing how long the virus lives in waste, how to test sewage consistently for the virus, and how to consider wastewater systems where sewage is diluted by industrial waste or stormwater before reaching the treatment plant, Garland said.

He said Cincinnati is a suitable location for the pilot because it has combined sewer systems, where all of the sources are mixed, and non-combined sewer systems.

The agency is “communicating with a number of people on this,” including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said. “We’re aware of all the work that’s going on and trying to build networks for monitoring on a broader scale.”

Ongoing Research

The EPA is working on multiple coronavirus research projects, and plans to issue reports on:

  • How to disinfect large areas, and what devices to use;
  • How to apply long-lasting disinfectants;
  • How to disinfect personal protective equipment, such as face masks and shields, for safe reuse; and
  • Whether wastewater treatment methods are effective against coronavirus.

The final reports and their associated data will be shared with the public, according to the agency. The EPA hasn’t yet determined when the information will be published.

The agency’s Science Advisory Board is finalizing its own report to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler recommending the agency pursue specific priorities under the umbrella of coronavirus research.

For example, the EPA should use its expertise to find ways to sample coronavirus in the environment and create protocols that other agencies and researchers can use, the board said in a May 13 draft report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Anna Yukhananov at