Sewage Spills Pose COVID-19 Risks  

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For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, May 5, 2020
Contact: Tim Whitehouse, 240-247-0299; Kirsten Stade


Overflows into Drinking Water Sources May Create New Infection Vectors


Washington, DC — The virus SARS-CoV-2, which causes Coronavirus, is in the feces of infected persons and can stay in that feces for a long time, up to 47 days.  As a result, both sewage leaks and Combined Sewage Overflows present a public health risk that is being magnified by big storms overwhelming aging sewers, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Of particular concern are large releases of sewage into drinking water sources. Nor’easters, hurricanes and other major storms frequently result in wastewater treatment plants having to release sewage into rivers in order to prevent it from backing up in homes. For example, an April 9, 2020 storm caused sewage to be released for hours into the Merrimack River, the drinking water source for a half-million Massachusetts residents. Sewage leaks can also result in raw sewage in streets or lawns.

“COVID-19 dramatically increases the public health consequences of these combined sewage overflows,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Our aging water infrastructure represents a growing public health vulnerability as these sewage spills become more common.”

Health officials recommend that people avoid direct contact with river water for 48 hours after a release, known as Combined Sewage Overflows, or CSO.  Yet, these CSOs remain a blind spot for tracking down sources of virus transmission.  For example –

  • Drinking water is not routinely screened for COVID-19, even following CSO events;
  • Workers in wastewater treatment plants are particularly at risk.  A recent survey of utilities found that nearly three in four water treatment plants register concerns about running out of masks, gowns, and gloves to protect their workers.  Similarly, EPA and state environmental inspectors face infection dangers; and
  • Enforcement suspensions by EPA and some states during this pandemic may foster a relaxation in CSO response.

“Much remains to be learned about the role of sewage overflows and disease transmission,” added Bennett, adding that EPA warrants only that “treatment and disinfectant processes at wastewater treatment plants are expected to be effective.” (emphasis added).  “At a minimum, EPA should be conducting or funding screening of at-risk drinking water for the presence of Coronavirus.”


Look at COVID persistence in wastewater 

View impacts on utility of possible PPE shortfalls

See EPA’s equivocal assurance about COVID and wastewater treatment

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