What We Flush
Down the Toilet Can Tell Us a Great Deal
We call it “wastewater,” but we don’t want to waste it.
The information it holds about COVID-19, influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), mpox and a growing list of other diseases is invaluable. It can tell us about infection across an entire community.
Scientists have known the potential for wastewater-based epidemiology for decades. Israel has monitored wastewater for polio since the late 1980s. The COVID pandemic is the first-time wastewater has been used to track a respiratory disease.
The scientists leading WastewaterSCAN now look for other pathogens in sewage not only from what we flush but what we may wash off our bodies or catch in a tissue that we flush after we blow our noses.
Simple, Sensitive, Complete
At the height of the pandemic, when clinical testing for SARS-CoV-2 was widespread, our results tracked case counts closely.
Using solids in wastewater, which carry about 1,000 times more viral genetic material than liquid sewage for many viruses, this method can identify a handful of infections per 100,000 people served by a wastewater system from a pea size sample.
No one served by a sewage system is left out, including residents and neighborhoods historically underserved by the healthcare system. Analyzing wastewater does not require people to be tested by healthcare providers or to report home tests.
Results from monitoring of wastewater solids can be directly compared from place to place and over time.
Communities return wastewater samples through no-cost overnight mail and have results within 48 hours of arrival.
Quicker turnaround for results can warn public health officials of a coming rise in cases before they show up as clinical results. For COVID-19, an infected person’s waste shows genetic markers of the COVID virus without the person needing to realize that they are ill, seek out a test, or wait for test results.
How to Join
WastewaterSCAN offers its wastewater monitoring to communities across the United States.Learn more about how communities can take part