Ebola Information Released for Water and Wastewater Utilities | TPO – Treatment Plant Operator Magazine

This week’s blog is by Laurie Loftin, with a link to an article from the Treatment Plant Operator (TPO) Magazine published October 9, 2014.

Edit 12/18/14:  The Georgia Association of Water Professionals has added a page of links to the latest on Ebola information as it relates to wastewater.  As new information becomes available, I will continue to add to this page.

Ebola.  The word has the power to strike fear in most people’s minds.  I experienced this firsthand on a recent trip to Las Vegas.  I gathered with other water professionals for a tour of the Venetian hotel’s extraordinary sustainability practices.  Almost at once, phones began to chirp with tweets and texts.  A plane was on lock down at the Las Vegas McCarran airport.  Reports stated a passenger on board had symptoms of Ebola.  Several in our tour group were scheduled to fly out of McCarran in a few hours.  The tour stopped as people discussed what this might mean to them. Could they fly back to their loved ones?  Would there be any risk of infection at the airport?  Fortunately, it was later determined the passenger did not meet the criteria for Ebola, but the fear of Ebola is contagious and it traveled home.

According to the CDC, Ebola spreads through direct contact with the blood or body fluids, including urine and feceebolas, of an infected person.  I indirectly work with wastewater.  I know wonderful, dedicated, and passionate people who work directly with wastewater.  Is there any risk to these unsung heroes?

TPO Magazine,  a publication dedicated to wastewater and water treatment professionals, recently addressed these concerns in a publication summarizing findings from the Water Research Foundation.  Per their request, I include and encourage you to click-through to their article find up to date research associated with the risks of Ebola for wastewater professionals:

Ebola Information Released for Water and Wastewater Utilities | TPO – Treatment Plant Operator Magazine.

Edit:  The CDC states there is no evidence suggesting Ebola spreads through water.  It spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluid.  Information on the CDC website states, “Sanitary sewers may be used for the safe disposal of patient waste. Additionally, sewage handling processes (e.g., anaerobic digestion, composting, and disinfection) in the United States are designed to inactivate infectious agents.”  The CDC recommends wastewater professionals “wear  normal personal protective equipment as provided by their employer.”

Edit:  I received a response on 10/23/14 to my emailed questions from the CDC.  I had specifically asked them to clarify “minutes” in regards to how long the virus can live in water. I asked if residual chlorine in toilet bowl water (assuming the delivered water is treated using chlorine) is effective in killing the virus. I also asked about the life cycle of the virus and how water affects it, as well as what impact, if any, this could have on greywater reuse.  The response is as follows:

“The time that Ebola virus can remain infectious outside the body varies depending on the temperature, humidity, and pH levels, as well as other factors, but roughly about 1 to 2 days.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Ebola virus can spread through water. Ebola is spread by direct contact with:

• Bodily fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola (blood, vomit, pee, poop, sweat, semen, spit, other fluids)
• Objects contaminated with the virus (needles, medical equipment)
• Infected animals (by contact with blood or fluids or infected meat)

Additionally, the sewage handling processes in the United States are designed to inactivate infectious agents. Sanitary sewers (which transport sewage from houses and commercial buildings) may be used for the safe disposal of patient waste.”

Edit:  I received another response from the CDC on 10/24/14:

“Thank you for contacting NIOSH INFO. We received your inquiry about potential exposures to Ebola virus for wastewater workers.  CDC has prepared interim guidance for sewer workers that is going through expedited review.  The document, titled Interim Guidance for Workers Handling Untreated Sewage from Ebola Cases in the United States, will address basic hygiene practices, personal protective equipment (PPE) use, and PPE disposal actions. Specifically, this guidance will provide recommendations and protocols for
*             workers who perform sewer maintenance,
*             construction workers who repair or replace live sewers,
*             plumbers, and
*             workers who clean portable toilets.

PPE you should consider when doing this type of work includes:

*Goggles or face shield: to protect eyes from splashes of human waste or sewage.
*Face mask: to protect nose and mouth from splashes of human waste or sewage.
*Impermeable or fluid resistant coveralls: to keep human waste or sewage off clothing.
*Waterproof gloves: to prevent exposure to human waste or sewage.
*Rubber boots: to prevent exposure to human waste or sewage.

We will be posting the interim guidance soon. Please check the CDC Ebola Website periodically for more information at: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/.”

If you happen to know or run into a water or wastewater professional, be sure and take a moment to thank him or her for their commitment to protecting the community, the environment, and you.

Laurie Loftin




4 thoughts on “Ebola Information Released for Water and Wastewater Utilities | TPO – Treatment Plant Operator Magazine

  1. Great news and very informative. Eventhough there was a big to do over nothing on Friday I am glad my flight left before the big scare.

    • Yes, very good news. I expect to get questions during upcoming field trips, so I was happy to learn this. The Las Vegas flight did cause a bit of panic and concern, particularly among those scheduled to leave in a few hours. Glad you made it out early and hope you have recovered from the time change.

  2. I have seen several references about viral contamination in wastewater where the potential viability lasts under 24 hours. This might be extended if the virus sequesters inside bacteria. The standard water treatment processes seem effective against existing viral contamination. Viruses also don’t seem to last long in open air or sunlight. Does that imply that a sewer spill in the collection system might release viable viruses that could infect people making immediate contact, including wastewater staff or passers by?

    • From the research I have found and read so far, it sounds as if the virus would not survive for very long once in water, surviving for only “minutes”. I wrote to the CDC to ask them for further definition of “minutes” and I am still waiting for a response. I also had telephone contact with the CDC and asked the same question. She did not have an answer. Honestly, I’m not sure there is a definitive answer at this point. This is what makes this virus such a huge concern for wastewater professionals. When, and if, I receive a response, I will be sure to add the information, which I think would help to answer your question. If it survives a minute, then I interrupt this to mean the risk from a sewer spill is almost zero. If “minutes” equals 60, then obviously the risk grows. Thankfully the virus has not reached the status of epidemic in the US, allowing for more time to reach a conclusive answer.

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