Scientists find coronavirus warning signals in wastewater

Our sewage takes things like viruses along for the ride. Wastewater utilities are working with researchers to tell if COVID-19 could crop up.

PINE BLUFF, Ark. — The virus is surging in most of the country, including Arkansas, but once we are able to get it back under control, it likely will still linger, looking to crop up again.

Scientists have discovered they can detect the virus in a community by fishing in wastewater, and utility workers in Pine Bluff are teaming with researchers at the nearby National Toxicology Research Center to turn that knowledge into a viral early-warning system.

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“It’s somewhat unique because it’s the first time we’ve been asked to do a research project on our wastewater treatment system here,” said Ken Johnson, the general manager of the Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility, as he looks over the collection pools at Boyd Point Treatment Plant.

Johnson and his team have the dirty job of turning the stuff in our sewers, including what we flush and send down the garbage disposal, into clean water suitable for sending back into nature (and specifically the Arkansas River).

There isn’t a nice way to say it, but when we flush down solids, stuff in our bodies goes along for the ride, and that includes things like the coronavirus.

If they know to look for it, suddenly Johnson’s usually unsung lab techs can become frontline detectives.

“I’m excited about the fact that there are clues here that can help the agencies that need to help identify when corona may have an outbreak,” said Vincent Miles, the environmental compliance supervisor, or the guy leading the team that turns the dirty water clean.

The NTRC is a part of the federal Food and Drug Administration. They tabulate the results from testing at Boyd Point and other participating utility companies. The dirty work of testing for the virus isn’t difficult. Technicians add another beaker of water to be mixed with chemical agents and sent off for analysis. One vial may check for cyanide. The next one is analyzed for coronavirus.

“We knew it was present,” Johnson said. “Quite obviously, you see it on the news every day, but to be able to track it through the feces and the waste material was somewhat unique.”

Similar studies have helped give experts an idea of how many asymptomatic people are in a community, but the real utility comes if cases go down, but then the wastewater techs find it again.

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“The virus shows up in our wastewater, then they know a re-occurrence is going to happen,” said Miles. “It comes before they start figuring out that it’s widespread and out of control.”