Many would regard sewage (wastewater) as nothing more than a problem for the environment and public health. Increasingly however, there is value being derived from the processing of it. For example, phosphorous is being extracted from wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) for use as fertiliser, while algae are being used for the sequestration of carbon from the exhausts of coal and gas boilers.
For decades wastewater has also been serving an under-recognised, yet important, role in environmental and public health. Wastewater monitoring has been used to track levels of pharmaceuticals, drugs and pollutants to inform environment and health actions. Scientists have also been able to isolate and quantify the genetic material from viruses such as measles, hepatitis A and norovirus from samples of wastewater. It is thus an important medium to track the health of communities. Of particular significance has been the important role that wastewater monitoring played in the worldwide eradication of the dreadful disease, poliomyelitis.
Identifying Covid-19 in wastewater
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused mayhem across the world. Soon after the start of the pandemic, scientists in the Netherlands found that viral particles were being shed in human faeces, and that it was possible to isolate and quantify the genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in wastewater. In addition, they found that they were able to isolate the viral genetic material (ribonucleic acid or RNA) around one to three weeks before it was usually detected in communities through human testing. Recognising the potential within wastewater monitoring to help manage COVID-19, countries such as Australia and the USA, as well as institutions worldwide, such as universities, hospital and prisons, hastily established their own wastewater surveillance systems. The hope was that early identification of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater could give health authorities valuable time in which to prepare for an increase in COVID-19 cases, or better yet, to intervene to prevent the transmission of the disease.
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