The outbreak of a respiratory illness, known as COVID-19, continues to spread around the world.
With one of the primary pieces of advice to regularly wash hands thoroughly to prevent the transfer of the disease, it means more than ever that the provision of clean and safe water by utilities is vital to stop the disease spreading.
During times of crisis, various questions are being asked over whether COVID-19 can be transferred via water and wastewater.
Global water sector professional bodies, institutions and associations have been quick to publish fact sheets and guidance documents to calm any concern and help cut through the sea of misinformation and fake news being produced and circulated.
Below we have brought together the highlights from various sources in one place.
The facts about COVID-19 and drinking water
A technical brief from the World Health Organisation (WHO) was released in early March for water and sanitation practitioners and providers.
There is no evidence about the survival of the COVID-19 virus in drinking water or sewage, WHO said, adding that the two main routes of transmission are respiratory or contact.
As an enveloped virus, COVID-19 is “not robust”, less stable in the environment and is more susceptible to oxidants, such as chlorine.
Conventional, centralised water treatment methods that use “filtration and disinfection should inactivate the COVID-19 virus”, the Organisation added.
In areas where centralised treatment is not present, “household water treatment technologies” including boiling, or using high-performing ultrafiltration or nanofiltration filters, solar irradiation, and, in non-turbid waters, UV irradiation and appropriately dosed free chlorine”, should be used.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) remarked that the COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water.
“Drinking water is protected against coronavirus”
Meanwhile, microbiologist Professor Gertjan Medema PhD from KWR Water Research Institute confirmed that the drinking water in the Netherlands is protected against coronavirus.
He had been asked by WHO during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus to assess the risk of the disease spreading through water and wastewater.
He said: “Drinking water utilities that produce their water from surface water sources have all set up multiple disinfection barriers for the purpose of removing bacteria, viruses and protozoa, which are also safeguarded by the Analysis of Microbial Safety of Drinking Water. Groundwater, in turn, is well protected in the subsurface against all microbial contaminants, including viruses.”
In a whitepaper, international engineering company Stantec said that based on published research, “water treatment processes that meet virus removal/inactivation regulations are expected to be effective for coronaviruses control”.
Treatment of coronaviruses in wastewater
On wastewater treatment, WHO added that there “is no evidence to date that the COVID-19 virus has been transmitted via sewerage systems with or without wastewater treatment”.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said wastewater treatment plants do treat viruses and other pathogens and that the virus is "particularly susceptible to disinfection".
No COVID-19-specific protections are recommended for employees involved in wastewater management operations, said the Water Environment Federation (WEF). Workers should follow routine practices to prevent exposure to wastewater.
However, the Federation added that COVID-19 may be transmitted through the faecal-oral route. The virus RNA was detected in patient stool after scientists noticed that some patients infected with the COVID-19 virus experienced diarrhoea in the early stages of infection instead of a fever, the latter being more common.
The CDC said that “the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from the faeces of an infected person is also unknown”.
However, it added, the risk is expected to be low based on data from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). There have been no reports of faecal-oral transmission of COVID-19 to date, CDC added.
What happens if water treatment plant operators are quarantined?
Answering the question ‘What if workers are quarantined at home, will water still be supplied?’, the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) responded: “water utilities are well prepared to manage their response to COVID-19”.
In general water treatment plants are secure, have back up power and require few staff to operate them and some water treatment plants can be operated remotely, the associated said.
It added that water utilities ensure that multiple staff are able to operate water treatment plants and water supply systems so that if one person is on leave for any reason drinking water can still be safely and reliably supplied.
However, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) said that potential absenteeism could “affect drinking water and wastewater system operators and their capability to operate and maintain their systems adequately, thereby increasing the risks to public health”.
Potential operational challenges caused by COVID-19
A member survey conducted by the AWWA earlier this month asked about anticipated business operations challenges caused by COVID-19 (results below):
The top results included “Absenteeism/continuity of operations” and “Impacts on field operations (meter reading, repairs etc).
Kevin Morley, federal relations manager, said: “As stewards of public health and the environment, water professionals are well versed on managing risks associated with protecting the water supply and planning for routine and extreme incidents. The coronavirus situation creates potential workforce and supply chain issues relative to utility continuity of service.”
Morley advised utilities to be prepared for “potential impacts to operations”, including staff absenteeism, and to respond to customer inquiries about water safety.