EPA Awards $1M for Wastewater Research
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded a $1 million research grant to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to improve wastewater monitoring for the spread of infectious disease to address current and future pandemics.
The EPA reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for tools to monitor the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Research is needed to help create effective wastewater sampling networks to allow for early detection of the spread of infection from national to local levels, as well as be made available that can be readily used by public health agencies nationwide.
“As research by EPA and others have demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, wastewater monitoring is an invaluable approach for detecting and tracking infectious disease and ultimately protecting public health,” said Chris Frey, Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
“This forward-looking EPA research grant will improve understanding of the presence of disease-causing pathogens in U.S. communities and support public health officials as they make decisions during pandemics.”
Researchers from the university will use the grant funding to develop a system to rank locations where wastewater monitoring should take place to detect disease-causing pathogens. The research will reportedly focus on improving the accuracy of predictions using an integrated analysis of data including weather, human mobility, health care, infrastructure, population density, socio-demographics and information from the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Following testing, the results are expected to include a transmission forecasting model for wastewater monitoring, a tested system to identify optimal monitoring sites, and a secure platform for data storage and analysis to provide actionable wastewater monitoring information to public health officials for pandemic management.
The EPA reports that results will then be communicated to public health officials through the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). NACCHO, the University of Florida and Portland State University are collaborating with the grantee on this project.
The principal investigator for the project, titled “Development of a Wastewater Hierarchical Sentinel Site Identification for Future Pandemic Surveillance Systems,” is UIUC professor Thanh Huong (Helen) Nguyen. The UIUC team also includes CEE Research Assistant Professor Arthur R. Schmidt, Illinois State Hydrologist Laura Keefer from the Prairie Research Institute and Associate Professor of Epidemiology Rebecca Smith from the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Future pandemics will require that wastewater surveillance be deployed quickly and effectively,” Nguyen said. “While a pandemic or epidemic is global or national, pathogen transmission is local.”
COVID Wastewater Tracking Research
Following the COVID-19 outbreak experienced in the United States last year, researchers from the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute began developing a new approach to monitoring regional levels of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19.
Conducted through a partnership between the university and the City of Tempe, Arizona, the research focused on a new monitoring approach for the novel coronavirus, among other dangerous pathogens and chemical agents, in wastewater.
The project was led by Professor Rolf Halden, who directs the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and teaches in ASU’sSchool for Sustainability and the Built Environment, and Olga Hart, lead author of the new study and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Health Engineering
In their redefined method, known as wastetwater-based epidemiology, the researchers collect sewage samples so that clues can be analyzed over human health, and can even detect levels of coronavirus infection at both a local and global scale. The high sensitivity of the type of study is also reported to have the potential to detect the signature of a single infected individual among 100 to 2 million persons.
According to ASU, the research method could lead to real-time monitoring of disease outbreaks, resistant microbes, levels of drug use or health indicators of diabetes, obesity and other maladies.
The process works by first transcribing coronavirus RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA) by the reverse transcriptase enzyme, then amplifying the resultant DNA to improve signal detection. This step is followed by the use of sequencing techniques to confirm viral presence in the wastewater samples.
When probing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the wastewater is screened for the presence of the virus’ nucleic acid fragments. The RNA genomes are amplified through a process known as reverse-transcriptase quantitative PCR (RT qPCR).
At the time, the university suggested that each person infected with SARS-CoV-2 could excrete millions, possibly billions, of viral genomes into wastewater per day, based on estimates on European and North America data. Given those chances, researchers translated that number to landing somewhere between 0.15 and 141.5 million viral genomes per liter of wastewater generated.
Using this type of monitoring system, along with RT qPCR, researchers predicted that they could detect the coronavirus with high sensitivity, simply by monitoring roughly every 1 in 114 individuals in in the worst-case scenario and just one positive case among 2 million noninfected individuals under optimum conditions. The information collected would be able to help pinpoint viral hotspots so that resources could better be directed to vulnerable populations, while restrictions could be eased in virus-free regions.
Although the research has since been published in an issue of the journal, Science of the Total Environment, the team has also created OneWaterOneHealth, a nonprofit project of the ASU Foundation that seeks to bring COVID-19 testing to those who currently cannot afford it.
Halden reports that by using the ASU-designed screening, roughly 70% of the U.S. population could be screened for SARS-CoV-2 through monitoring the country’s 15,014 wastewater treatment plants at an estimated cost for chemical reagents of $225,000.
By June, the EPA announced that its researchers would also be engaging in research practices to help states, tribes, local, territorial governments, and public health agencies in reducing the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, in wastewater.
As part of the Agency’s research efforts, officials also panned to look at effective cleaning and disinfection, along with public health strategies like testing and social distancing.
In January of this year, infrastructure consulting firm AECOM announced that it would be partnering with Northern New Jersey-based Bergen County Utilities Authority and Columbia University (New York City) to monitor COVID-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) in wastewater in the BCUA sewer shed.
While AECOM announced the partnership at the beginning of December, the first phase of the project was reported to have launched in the spring where research teams collected, tested and analyzed more than 650 samples at the Little Ferry Water Pollution Control Facility six days per week at six different points within the plant and at various points within the sewer collection system.
Following initial testing, researchers then conducted molecular testing—specifically, RT-qPCR testing—to determine the COVID-19 RNA concentrations and statistical analysis was performed to develop time series trends that correlated to actual reported cases. The results indicated that wastewater monitoring statistically provides a seven- to ten-day leading indicator of reported COVID-19 cases.
Through the partnership, researchers hope that wastewater COVID-19 RNA testing will deliver valuable, early information around trends in infection rates and provide advantages in tracking hot spots and developing proactive mitigation strategies. The project also aims to equip public health and emergency management officials with a continuous method of community monitoring to inform decisions around social distancing protocols, shelter-in-place orders, targeted testing, reopening strategies, and vaccine deployment.
AECOM, BCUA, and Columbia University reported that they would continue this work as the program is expanded.
Then, in August 2021, Healthy Davis Together in California reported that through its wastewater sampling operations, the agency witnessed an increase in the level of SARS-CoV-2 at the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant with corresponding fluctuations in a few regions in the city.
Through Healthy Davis Together, UC Davis and the City’s Department of Public Works set up wastewater sample collection locations at 25 key points (“nodes”) in the City’s sewage (“wastewater”) collection system. Although, this type of sampling does not collect data from individual households.
It was also discovered that clinical COVID-19 testing data was also showing a rise in the highly contagious Delta variant among Davis residents who test positive for COVID-19.
In response to the success of wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 and the associated Delta variant, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that the CDC plans to allocate some $33 million to 31 public-health laboratories to start additional testing in the coming months.