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Your toilet has a lot to say about you— including if you have COVID-19

Published: May. 14, 2020 at 4:43 PM MST|Updated: May. 14, 2020 at 4:44 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The University of Arizona is tracking the novel coronavirus in our community, and around North America and the method gets personal.

Director of the University of Arizona West Center, Dr. Ian Pepper and his team are taking samples of sewage water twice a week from a wastewater treatment plant in Tucson and several others from around the country and in Canada. The samples are mailed to the UArizona lab to be screened and tested for COVID-19.

“It really answers the question, is the virus in that given community?” said Pepper.

Studies have shown viruses can be detected in wastewater two-to-three weeks before many patients are diagnosed. People shed viruses this way and it’s an easy, quick way to get a general idea of the kind of presence a virus has in an area.

University of Arizona researchers are taking samples of sewage water from a wastewater...
University of Arizona researchers are taking samples of sewage water from a wastewater treatment plant in Tucson and several others from around the country and in Canada to be tested for COVID-19.(KOLD News 13)

“Sewage surveillance is a leading indicator as opposed to deaths, that’s a lagging indicator. That’s the last thing you see,” said Pepper.

The researchers are not yet able to tell exactly how many people have a virus, like COVID-19, from the sewage water samples, but can see if things like social distancing are working by tracing the virus levels found in samples. The group has been collecting wastewater samples in Tucson since mid-March.

“We’ve seen concentrations increase, we’ve seen them stabilize and more recently we’ve seen them decrease, which is a good thing,” said Pepper.

University of Arizona researchers are taking samples of sewage water from a wastewater...
University of Arizona researchers are taking samples of sewage water from a wastewater treatment plant in Tucson and several others from around the country and in Canada to be tested for COVID-19.(KOLD News 13)

They have found traces of COVID-19 in storm water in New York this way, and will use it when students return in the fall. Sampling sewage from dorms, researchers said they will be able to tell if even one person is positive for COVID—even if they aren’t showing symptoms. This will be part of a plan from the University to combat COVID-19 as students move back in the fall, which includes temperature checks, COVID testing and antibody testing.

Pepper said tracing sewage water can be one of the first methods to detect a resurgence in the virus. He said the method is so accurate, it can pick up a single positive case in a group of 10,000.

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