MidAtlantic Biosolids Association

COVID - A Biosolids Research Update

Remember those good old days about 6 weeks ago, when our major concern was PFAS?

That all changed in Seattle a few weeks back.

And the rest of the country has quickly followed suit. 

Last July, I did a library called Summer Pandemic, making fun of those summer blockbuster movies.  It featured articles by Ian Pepper about the fate of various exotic diseases in wastewater and biosolids.  Article #3 was about coronaviruses. 

We are now living in the movie. 

This library provides additional articles on the fate of coronaviruses in wastewater treatment.  Remember here that COVID- 19 is a new type of coronavirus.  What has been reported before for this type of virus is likely to apply to COVID-19, but there are also likely some differences.  This is all new and happening fast.  Hopefully, some background will help.

First, the basics.  With wastewater treatment and biosolids, we have typically focused on disease causing bacteria.  With bacteria it is a question of good guys versus bad guys.  There are a lot of great bacteria; our bodies are full of them.  There are a few bad bacteria.  When we are attacked by the bad, it is our good army versus their bad army.    You can think of this in terms of a previous blockbuster movie:


We use fecal coliform or salmonella to measure pathogen kill in biosolids.  Below a certain number, their armies are way too weak to cause a problem for the good guys. 

Viruses are different.  It only takes one or two viable bad guys to cause problems.  They are not living per se, but contain DNA or RNA and start making our bodies work against us on entry.  While not quite as well known as Lord of the Rings, I would strongly recommend watching Osmosis Jones, both for a good laugh and to better understand the way a virus can work.


The library starts with a great overview article (Emerging investigators series: the source and fate of pandemic viruses in the urban water cycle).  Corona viruses are a subset of viruses that contain the meat of the virus, the DNA or RNA inside an outer protective shell or an envelope.  A lot of recent outbreaks fall into this category, including SARS, MERS and Ebola.  SARS and MERs are both coronaviruses.  A table from the article shows the different viruses that have come from animal sources and their fatality rates. In general, these viruses are not considered a threat for wastewater or wastewater treatment as most degrade easily and quickly in water. However, there are exceptions.  Some avian flu viruses and some coronaviruses are able to persist in water.  The authors make a critical point -- for these viruses to be a concern for wastewater treatment systems, they have to enter those systems.  To do so people would need to shed the viruses in urine, feces or vomit.  These viruses that give you the runs are enteric viruses, ones that multiply in the gut and are transmitted through products of our guts.  COVID-19 and all coronaviruses have a different outer structure than enteric viruses and are more susceptible to deactivation in water.  These are also primarily respiratory viruses; they prefer your lungs to your gut.  The main way that they can get into wastewater is if you swallow your snot.  Put in more scientific terminology ‘the presence of respiratory virus genes in feces is thought to stem from a patient swallowing virus-laden nasal secretions.’ 

The authors also point out here that just because you can find the DNA or RNA of a virus in wastewater, it doesn’t mean that the virus is active.  An intact and entire particle is required to be of concern.  There is a section on coronaviruses with a focus on SARS.  SARS was unique because although primarily a respiratory virus, diarrhea occurred  in a portion of infected individuals.  The other prior coronaviruses have not had a significant presence in fecal material.  From what I’ve read about COVID-19, it is primarily a respiratory virus with little in the way of gastrointestinal symptoms being reported.  Here is another table from the paper with survivability of different viruses in aqueous environments. 

The article goes on to talk about persistence of different viruses in wastewater and issues with quantifying viruses.  We’ll get to those topics later. 

Next article is an in depth look at the SARS virus (Enteric involvement of severe acute respiratory syndrome–associated coronavirus infection).  SARS is of interest here, as it is a coronavirus just like COVID 19.  However, it is different from COVID-19 in two critical ways: the % mortality is much higher, and it is often accompanied by diarrhea.  In fact, SARS was spread in one cluster (an apartment building in Hong Kong) through poorly constructed plumbing.  Aerosolized fecal matter is what got them.  This article talks about the presence of the virus in the intestinal tracts of victims, the prevalence of diarrhea (20%), and replication in the intestinal tract.  In fact,the Ian Pepper paper on coronaviruses (July library) was a study on persistence in wastewater of other viruses used as surrogates for SARS. 

From here we go to the sky is falling paper (Identification of viral pathogen diversity in sewage sludge by metagenome analysis).  Here the authors use metagenomics to test for DNA/ RNA presence of a wide range of viruses in wastewater and sludge.  They found plenty of them, including coronaviruses.  The authors collected wastewater from different regions in the US and different sized plants and scoured the samples for virus DNA. The authors identified over 400,000 contiguous sequences of genetic data.  Of those, 0.11% were likely associated with human viral pathogens.  The most common viruses were- no surprises here- herpes and HPV.  A reason to get the vaccine and wear a condom.  Coronaviruses were also relatively common, found in 83% of the tested samples.  The results are shown below.


What is critical to remember here, and was discussed in the first paper, is that sequencing to find viruses does not have any relation to the viability of those viruses.  So, cry wolf all you want, let’s look at viability of coronaviruses in the last two papers in the library. 

The 4th paper is by the same group that wrote the first paper (Survivability, partitioning, and recovery of enveloped viruses inuntreated municipal wastewater)..  It specifically addresses survivability of enveloped (includes corona) viruses in untreated municipal wastewater.  They used two model enveloped viruses and two bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria).  In unpasteurized wastewater at 25 C the two enveloped viruses lasted for 7 and 13 hours.  Cool that water down and the viruses last a lot longer; 28-36 hours.  Pasteurizing the water also slowed down the deactivation.  The authors also found that the majority of the viruses partitioned to the liquids rather than the solids.  When spiked into water containing solids, a rapid decrease was seen in the first hour.  This means that viruses entering the plant in cooler climates may be active but they are almost certainly inactive in the solids and very likely inactive in the effluent.  Below is the graph showing the decline of the two enveloped surrogates that they used. 


The final paper (Inactivation of an enveloped surrogate virus in human sewage) confirms the results from the 4th paper.  The hotter the better.  But lifespan is days rather than weeks.

The take-home from these studies and from the previous library is that because of a number of factors- wastewater and biosolids are not going to be a realistic concern for transmission of COVID-19.  I hope that this is of some help/hope and that soon we can all get back to worrying about PFAS.

Remember to social distance and to wash your hands!


Biosolids News You Can Use

Information resources that frame the issue of the novel coronavirus in wastewater and biosolids are now available. 

A Message to the WEF Community about Coronavirus . WEF is offering a free webinar "Webinar Clean Water Act Regulatory Issues in a Pandemic"  REGISTER HERE NOW

Virginia Biosolids Council has posted today a statement on COVID-19. This is a great service to biosolids practitioners in our region. I will attach it here. This is the link to the VBC webpage.

Northwest Biosolids COVID-19 Update .  In this message, you will find an offer for testing of your wastewater for the novel coronavirus. It is Sewage Surveillance: WEST tests wastewater to determine Coronavirus presence in communities

Here are a few newsy items

Residents Blast Proposed Sewer Sludge Facility in Butler at Meeting; no Decisions Made Yet
Butler, NY (3/10/20) - Tully Environmental gave a presentation on their proposal to construct a sludge processing facility to the Town of Butler. The town voted to appoint an environmental engineer to review the proposal.
Big Turnout Expected for Meeting in Butler on Proposed Sludge Facility
Residents Attend Town of Butler Meeting to Oppose Proposed Sludge Composting Center
Farm Fights Nearby Sewer Sludge Dump

Municipalities Interested in AWA Digester Project
Altoona, PA (2/23/20) - The Altoona Water Authority is considering increasing the size of the sludge drying machinery on its current plans for a proposed digester construction project at the Westerly Sewer Treatment Plant to accommodate waste from 3 additional communities. They hope to fund the project under the energy-conservation program of the Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Fund.

Sludge Proposal in Wayne County Not Sitting Well with Some Residents
Butler, NY (2/19/20) - Representatives from Tully Environment Incorporated met with Butler town leaders about a proposal to build a sludge treatment facility on private land. Some residents have expressed they are not happy about the proposal.  

Illinois American Water Partners With Illinois Farmers to Prevent Over 29,000 Dry Tons of Residuals and Biosolids From Entering Landfills
Belleville, IL (3/3/20) - “American Water partnered with Illinois farmers to apply over 29,000 dry tons of residuals and biosolids in 2019. The biosolids came from Champaign County, Chicago Metro, Granite City, Peoria and Streator service areas and were applied to agricultural fields across the state.

Pingree Grills EPA Boss on Trump’s Funding Cuts, Failure to Regulate Forever Chemicals
Maine (3/5/2020) - Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree is one of many congressional lawmakers criticizing the current EPA administration to list PFAS as toxic chemicals and develop pretreatment standards under Section 307 of the Clean Water Act. 

Lystek-Fairfield Organic Material Recovery Center Adds Additional Bay Area Customers for Advanced Biosolids Management
Fairfield, CA (3/10/20) - Lystek has entered an agreement to manage a portion of the biosolids coming from Mt. View Sanitary Agency (Martinez, Contra Costa County) and Sanitary District No. 5 of Marin County.

City and Public Utility Board Team Up for Biosolids Program
Brownsville, TX (3/16/20) - The city of Brownsville is teaming up with the Brownsville Public Utility Board to create a pilot biosolids composting program at the local landfill. Biosolids will be  re-used on the landfill slopes and excess could be sold as compost.PFAS Developments Announced

Marinette County and Oconto County, WI (2/20/2020) - Through the recent biosolids land-spreading site investigation plan submitted by JCI/Tyco in November and approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in February, JCI/Tyco will sample a total of 61 fields throughout two counties where municipal biosolids were spread. They also agreed to test all potable water wells within 1,200-feet of property boundaries of those fields. Additional steps will be taken in these site evaluations after snow melts in the communities. This article continues to list other parts of the PFAS investigation including tests related to deer consumption, increasing PFAS levels at specific sites in the community and an expansion of the investigation into private drinking water well testing in Marinette and Peshtigo. 

Deerfield Will Ship Organic Waste to Landfills to Limit Manure-Like Odors that Upset Residents
Deerfield, IL (2/28/20) - Biosolids will now be shipped out of the Deerfield Water Reclamation Facility once their storage facility is full. Biosolids were the source of odor in the community last rainy season and the issue was exacerbated because the ground was too wet for farmers to use and apply biosolids.

Palo PFAS Study Finding ‘Good News’
Palo, MI (2/29/20) - A community meeting was held to give an update on the state’s investigation of PFAS in Palo groundwater. In 2017 the state began focusing on investigating PFAS, when then Gov. Rick Snyder developed the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. 

Biosolid fertilizer concerns pile up in Dawn-Euphemia Township
Dawn-Euphemia Township, ON, Canada (2/28/20) - A commercial property owner allowing biosolids to be stored on their land was recently told they are in violation of zoning and planning rules. The company that distributes the fertilizer has applied to turn vacant land in Adelaide-Metcalfe Township into a storage facility.

Backlash Spreads Over Easing of Biosolids Ban at Hartland Landfill
Capital Regional District, Victoria, Canada (2/20/20) - The Capital Regional District is facing a backlash over its decision to ease a ban on the land application of biosolids in order to spread the material at the Hartland Landfill. Residents feel the decision was made without informing the public or doing any type of risk assessment to address the initial concern that drove them to ban the practice 9 years ago. 
Chief: Tsartlip, Tsawout Left in Dark on CRD Plan for Biosolids
Residents Raise Stink at Capital Region's Proposal to Spread Biosolids at Local Landfill



Symposiums & Presentations

2019 Summer Symposium

2018 Annual Meeting & Symposium

2018 Summer Symposium

2017 Annual Meeting & Symposium

2017 Summer Symposium

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2016 Annual Meeting & Symposium

2016 Summer Symposium

2016 NJWEA Workshop


Biosolids Goes Viral - Redux

COVID-19 has shown that Life can change on a dime. Early last week I was deep in the weeds on phosphorus extraction. By the end of the week, I had returned to my TOPICs from four years ago, January 2016, Biosolids Goes Viral. It contains links to science articles that are still relevant today. I checked out WEF’s statement, “Current Priority: Coronavirus,” and is offering operator-relevant webinars. Yet, I am not convinced by our profession’s response to date to this new challenge.

In 2016, I glibly ended my essay with “Don’t Be Stupid” because I had discerned that humans unnecessarily engaged in risky behaviors. For our profession, riskiness is in our lack of response to the call for tracking viruses in biosolids.

I returned to Google Scholar and learned that coronavirus is not new to biosolids scientists. Our friends at University of Arizona, Drs. Ian Pepper and Chuck Gerba, are ahead of the curve with their 2008 paper Survival of Coronaviruses in Water and Wastewater, as they responded to concerns for those other previous coronavirus outbreaks – SARS and MERS. In that paper, several hopeful phrases include: “enveloped viruses [which is what coronavirus is] are less stable in the environment than nonenveloped viruses,” and “coronaviruses are more rapidly inactivated in water and wastewater at ambient temperatures.” But the larger message is not so sanguine, in that coronavirus is indeed present in biosolids, and those aspects of treatment that might influence its activity are not known.

Other reports give scope to how stupid we are about coronavirus. We have remained largely uninformed about biosolids-borne viruses, and the research effort over the past decade has been light. A 2010 paper out of Brazil, Detection of enteric viruses in sewage sludge and treated wastewater effluent, reported “this suggests that solids associated viruses in wastewater are protected from predation and inactivation. However, the coronaviruses were below the minimum detection limit after 3 days.” Reports out of Dr. Jordan Peccia’s lab at Yale were important but had little follow up by his lab or others. These include the 2011 paper Viral metagenome analysis to guide human pathogen monitoring in environmental samples, and the 2013 paper Identification of Viral Pathogen Diversity in Sewage Sludge by Metagenome Analysis. The 2016 paper Survivability, Partitioning, and Recovery of Enveloped Viruses in Untreated Municipal Wastewater pointed out that “[M]any of the devastating pandemics and outbreaks of the 20th and 21st centuries have involved enveloped viruses.. [h]owever, little is known about the presence and fate of enveloped viruses in municipal wastewater. EPA’s Threat and Consequence Assessment Division issued a report in 2018 Exposure Pathways to High-Consequence Pathogens in the Wastewater Collection and Treatment Systems, asserting: “Numerous respiratory viruses have been reported in feces, including respiratory syncytial virus, SARS coronavirus, adenovirus, and bocavirus… quantitative data that describe viable pathogen numbers in bodily fluids, especially feces, for many respiratory pathogens are scarce and/or highly uncertain.”

“Little is known”; “data… are scarce or highly uncertain”. We join the rest of the world in finding that COVID-19 is a wake-up call to support scholarship and science in wastewater and public health, because the cost of stupidity is high.

Here is TOPICs from January 2016.

Biosolids Goes Viral

Bacteria usually command front page, sort of the Donald of the microbe world. This week the Listeria bacteria powerfully disrupted Dole’s sale of bagged greens from Ohio (CDC: 1 Dead In Michigan From Listeria Linked To Dole Salads ), and several weeks back E coli shuttered Chipotle in various states, but particularly Oregon. 

But the more menacing of microbe stories this past week centered on viruses.

While Chipotle had its problem with E coli contamination, it also suffered from a virus, the norovirus, tied to unclean workers and food handling practices. Norovirus made ill a far larger number of patrons and workers than had E coli, not just in one locale, but in two, California and in Massachusetts (Chipotle’s Norovirus Outbreak Is Not A Typical Norovirus Outbreak ).

If you like this kind of stuff, you can’t beat the CDC reports of its investigations:  Vital Signs: Multistate Foodborne Outbreaks — United States, 2010–2014). (Hint: beware of organic alfalfa sprouts.) You can learn also of the viral causes of the over 100 million GI illnesses in the U.S. annually, particularly noroviruses and Norfolk-Like Viruses (NLVs).

Over the past two years, viruses clearly win the popular vote for health-scare. We had Ebola show its terrible rapid spread in 2014 into 2015. We in the wastewater industry have learned a bit about risks associated with discharge of human fluids to publicly owned sewers, and we have federal guidance to help us (Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Interim Guidance for Managers and Workers Handling Untreated Sewage from Suspected or Confirmed Individuals with Ebola in the U.S.)  You  may have caught the news from WHO that “all known chains of transmission” of Ebola infections were closed (Latest Ebola outbreak over in Liberia; West Africa is at zero, but new flare-ups are likely to occur ). The next day the report came out that an Ebola case, an isolated one, had been reported. The world is not Ebola-free.

The latest viral scare, of course, is Zika. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus, like the better known West Nile Virus (WNV), but is scary for the horrifying birth defects and potentially debilitating paralysis. That it is not carried in animal, as is WNV in birds, will help limit Zika’s spread among humans in the United States.

This past week also witnessed another viral scare, an outbreak of avian flu in Indiana. The outbreak in Indiana was not the highly pathogenic avian influenza (NPAI) that resulted in loss last year of 48 million poultry and $3.3 billion, but a lesser pathogen.  Is there a risk to human health? We need to wait and see.

But we have increased viral risks from that great vector – stupid people. I found these two CDC reports of potential viral risks.  A New Jersey woman administered dozens of flu shots with the same unsanitary needle, and we had an NGO issue fraudulent rabies vaccine certificate to dogs imported to the U.S. from Egypt.

Stupid people seem to be the vector for water risks in Flint, Michigan., Yes, this is a lead issue, not a pathogen issue, but fundamentally the Flint story is about egregiously negligent government officials.  

Flint raises my biosolids guard.  With viruses emerging in prominence as world health issues, and with the failures of municipal utility management causing people serious harm, how can we in biosolids not pause to revisit our own responsibility for ensuring public health?  Are we sufficiently informed about connections between viruses in biosolids and human health risks, and do connect our choice of biosolids processes and practices to specific targets for viral pathogen reduction?  Are we witnessing a failure to advance the science behind biosolids pathogen and vector attraction reduction regulations? Have we ever witnessed biosolids folks doing stupid things? Yes, these are rhetorical questions.

If you haven’t reviewed the literature on viruses in biosolids over the past several years, you may not be aware of how rapidly our knowledge-base has increased about biosolids-borne viruses. 

Researchers have applied new DNA analytical tools to scan biosolids for a wide variety of virus types.  instead of focusing on a few potential indicator viruses, an array of viruses are measured.  The Yale University research team, headed by Dr. Jordan Peccia, in  Viral metagenome analysis to guide human pathogen monitoring in environmental samples, found “the RNA viruses parechovirus and coronavirus and the DNA virus herpesvirus were the most abundant human viruses in the biosolid sample tested here, [so that in the future we can] ensure that highly enriched and relevant pathogens are not neglected in exposure and risk assessments.” Their hope is that “as the costs of next-generation sequencing decrease, the pathogen diversity described by virus metagenomes will provide an unbiased guide for subsequent cell culture and quantitative pathogen analyses and ensures that highly enriched and relevant pathogens are not neglected in exposure and risk assessments.”

Treatment processes don’t necessarily serve as adequate barriers to all pathogens. For example, the Yale team, in  Survey of Wastewater Indicators and Human Pathogen Genomes in Biosolids Produced by Class A and Class B Stabilization Treatments, reported that in biosolids composting systems Legionella bacteria seemed to have the potential to proliferate during composting to thrive in biosolids composting processes.”  The authors also argued that “we can translate these infectious adenovirus concentrations in bulk biosolid samples to a downwind aerosol concentration using a previously described and calibrated aerosol transport model for respirable biosolid material at off-site locations.”

The Yale team’s results also offer ideas for improving regular monitoring of biosolids products.  The paper stated that in “…a cross section of biosolid samples (Fig. 1), male-specific coliphages appear to be a more stringent test of inactivation.  …pathogen concentrations for a given sample were more comparable to male-specific coliphage values; this result suggests that they would be more useful for documenting pathogen presence than fecal coliforms.”  In another recent journal article by this team, Identification of viral pathogen diversity in sewage sludge by metagenome analysis, the authors recommended that the industry should “consider a broader selection of viruses in environmental fate and transport studies, and importance of considering multiple human exposure routes to sewage sludge and wastewater.”

The EPA lab in Cincinnati has contributed recently to the evolving science of measuring viruses.  Eric Rhodes, head of the team at USEPA Cincinnati Labs, authored a recent article Determining Pathogen and Indicator Levels in Class B Municipal Organic Residuals Used for Land Application.  Dr Rhodes writes: “Overall, this study reveals that high concentrations of enteric pathogens (e.g., Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and HAdV) are present in biosolids throughout the United States. …. A more thorough analysis of the relationship between pathogenic HAdV and fecal indicator organisms is warranted. Nonetheless, these results reveal the potential risks associated with exposure to human adenovirus and protozoan pathogens present Class B treated biosolids.”

Research results that enumerate viral organism in biosolids provide inputs to new tools for assessing health risks and for decision making. A Swedish research team headed by Robin Harder published  Including Pathogen Risk in Life Cycle Assessment of Wastewater Management. 1. Estimating the Burden of Disease Associated with Pathogens , followed by Including Pathogen Risk in Life Cycle Assessment of Wastewater Management. Implications for Selecting the Functional Unit. This team conducted an evaluation “based on eight previous QMRA (quantitative microbial risk assessment) studies as well as parameter values taken from the literature. A total pathogen risk (expressed as burden of disease) on the order of 0.279 disability-adjusted life years (DALY) per year of operation was estimated for the model WWTS serving 287,600 persons and for the pathogens and exposure pathways included in this study.” 

Yes, a lot of new science and new assessments. This deserves our attention and, what is more, even in the absence of EPA funding, it deserves investment of our money. The pay back might be most keen in providing incentives for companies to evolve treatment technologies and for public agencies to institute best practices. The pay back is also in our pride when we well-serve our ratepayers and communities.  And, best of all, it may remind us Don't Be Stupid.