Michigan wastewater treatment center
CDC says there is no evidence at this time that COVID-19 can be transmitted to workers through wastewater, but standard precautions should be followed.

This week, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) convened a panel of experts to examine the biological hazards that wastewater workers may be facing during the coronavirus pandemic, and to evaluate whether safety precautions already in place need to be adjusted.

The panel includes experts in water operations, science and health and safety, WEF explained in a press release. The panel is expected to provide input to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the World Health Organization (WHO), among other agencies.

“The top priority of the Water Environment Federation is always to ensure the safety and health of the frontline people in the water workforce, who protect our communities not just during the coronavirus pandemic but every single day,” said WEF President Jackie Jarrell. “In keeping with the WEF tradition of educational and technical excellence, the blue-ribbon panel will make certain that our information on hazards and safety and the guidance of organizations such as the WHO, CDC, OSHA, and EPA are based on the latest evidence and absolute best science.”

According to WEF, at this time “the scientific community has found no evidence of viable COVID-19 virus in wastewater systems.” Information available at WEF.org states that “there is currently no epidemiological evidence that wastewater is a route of transmission.”

“While there is still a lot we don't know, it appears that contracting COVID-19 through exposure to wastewater is unlikely,” the WEF website states.

The CDC website explains that while the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in untreated wastewater, “researchers do not know whether this virus can cause disease if a person is exposed to untreated wastewater or sewerage systems. There is no evidence to date that this has occurred. At this time, the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through properly designed and maintained sewerage systems is thought to be low.”

The CDC also states that researchers believe that standard municipal and individual septic system wastewater treatment practices should inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Recommendations from the CDC are that standard practices should be followed in wastewater treatment facilities, including: 

  • engineering and administrative controls
  • hygiene precautions
  • specific safe work practices
  • personal protective equipment (PPE) 

The WEF panel is tasked with addressing the requirements of personal protective equipment (PPE) and protective work and hygiene practices. WEF posts regular updates on protecting wastewater workers from the coronavirus at WEF.org/coronavirus. The organization also recommends referencing  WEF’s Manual Practice No. 1, Safety, Health, and Security in Wastewater Systems (Sixth Edition), Chapter 8.

The panel of experts will review the advice provided in the manual and other WEF publications and guidance from federal agencies to determine if supplemental advice or recommendations are warranted to protect worker health and safety, WEF states. 

The panel is expected to work quickly and present its initial findings within a few weeks.

The group is chaired by Dr. Art Umble, who leads the Global Wastewater Sector for Stantec Consulting and previously managed a publicly owned water and wastewater utility. Dr. Umble also serves on the advisory council of the Water Research Foundation (WRF), the editorial board for the Water Environment Research (WER) journal, and university advisory boards for environmental engineering, and provides peer review for academic journals and collaborative research projects.

Panel members represent a variety of academics, practitioners and policy makers in disciplines from across the water sector, including public health, safety and security, utility management, collection systems, facility operations, municipal design, industrial, laboratory services, and microbiology.

The panel members are:

  • Dr. Art Umble (Chair), Stantec
  • Dr. Allegra da Silva (Vice Chair), Brown and Caldwell
  • Tim Page-Bottorff (Vice Chair), SafeStart
  • Dr. Charles Gerba, University of Arizona
  • Dr. Kyle Bibby, University of Notre Dame
  • Dr. Charles Haas, Drexel University
  • Dr. Leonard Casson, University of Pittsburgh
  • Dr. Kartik Chandran, Columbia University
  • Dr. Mark Sobsey, University of North Carolina and World Health Organization
  • Dr. Mark LeChevallier, Dr. Water Consulting
  • John Bannen, Inframark
  • Dr. Earnest Blatchley III, Purdue University
  • David Gill, DC Water
  • Dr. Naoko Munakata, Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts