News Feature | April 17, 2017

Sewer Workers May Face Ebola Threat

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

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Researchers say sewer workers operating near a hospital treating Ebola patients may be at risk of picking up the virus, which can cause a fast-acting and often fatal disease.

A study published in this month’s edition of Water Environment Research, the journal of the Water Environment Federation, examined guidance from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to dispose of waste from Ebola patients.

There is no research on whether the guidance from these groups ensures safety for wastewater workers, particularly if they inhale fumes in the sewer system, the study says.

“Current World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for the disposal of liquid waste from patients undergoing treatment for Ebola virus disease at hospitals in the U.S. is to manage patient excreta as ordinary wastewater without pretreatment,” the study said.

The researchers studied whether inhaling fumes from this kind of waste presents a risk to sewer workers.

They considered four scenarios that varied how infectious the viral particles were and varied how well the hypothetical worker complied with safety equipment guidelines.

The key finding: In the most dangerous scenario, workers faced a threat level that many risk managers would not be willing to accept. The study also noted that more research is needed.

“The results suggest that the potential risk that sewer workers face when operating in a wastewater collection system downstream from a hospital receiving Ebola patients warrants further attention, and that current authoritative guidance for Ebolavirus liquid waste disposal — to dispose in the sanitary sewer without further treatment — may be insufficiently protective of sewer worker safety,” the study said.

There are ways to keep workers safer than they are today, according to the study.

“Based on the assessment, the authors suggest additional precautions to protect workers, such as using approved respirators or disinfecting the wastewater prior to discharge to the sewer until further studies can confirm the risk to exposed workers with greater certainty,” Tim Ellis, editor-in-chief of Water Environment Research, said in a statement.

The study was conducted by researchers from Drexel University and the University of Pittsburgh, according to UPI.

"During the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak, we had our first case of Ebola treated in the U.S., and by the end 11 individuals had been treated here. So this is certainly an area of risk assessment that we need to examine more closely," Charles Haas, a professor at Drexel, said in a statement.

To read more about keeping utility workers safe during an emergency visit Water Online’s Resiliency Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Hospital de la Cruz Roja de Vigo," Contando Estrelas © 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: