City of Detroit & MSU to test untreated sewage for COVID-19 as part of study

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Posted at 7:17 AM, May 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-18 07:17:18-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department have recently started testing for COVID-19 in untreated sewage.

DWSD and MSU began a virus research project in November 2017 to determine if viruses can be detected in the city's sewer collection system. Originally, the project was to detect known viruses.

Now, with funding and expertise from the Great Lakes Water Authority, they are now working to trace the COVID-19 oubreak.

“Detroit has been at the forefront of testing and providing the community resources during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a release. “This project with MSU [launched in 2017] again shows that we have a forward-thinking and collaborative mentality that puts the community first.”

The MSU study found viruses can be detected in untreated sewage – including coronaviruses.

“We are excited by the efforts of MSU and the implications this work may have in supporting our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Denise Fair, the City of Detroit Chief Public Health Officer. “I am encouraged and applaud any effort that seeks to enhance the health and wellbeing of our community.”

Dr. Irene Xagoraraki, an associate professor of environmental engineering at MSU, is leading the study.

“Our approach has the potential to provide warnings earlier than traditional systems focused on clinical diagnostics – rapid or not – which are inherently limited to an after analysis of an outbreak,” said Dr. Xagoraraki. “Our approach goes above and beyond simple surveillance of wastewater.”

The study is now in its second phase and teams are collecting samples weekly for Xagoraraki's team to quantify concenrations of beta coronavirus SARS-CoV2 in wastewater.

“The method we are using is at a research level at this point and multiple steps need to be followed to make it user-friendly for utilities around the country. Partnering with DWSD and GLWA, which operates the largest single site wastewater treatment plant North America, is crucial for the development of this method. If it can be done here with this massive system and show predictive results, it can be done in other smaller communities as well.” said Dr. Xagoraraki.

Dr. Xagoraraki’s team includes MSU PhD students Brijen Miyani and Camille McCall, recent graduates Huiyun Wu and Evan O’Brien, DWSD manager Anil Gosine and other personnel, GLWA’s Norton, Dr. Andrea Busch and Dr. Xavi Fonoll, and CDM-Smith’s Anna Mehrotra and other personnel.

The public does not encounter untreated sewage and is not vulnerable, according to the city. Once sewage enters the city's collection pipe, it is not encountered by the general public.

Most basement backups are either stormwater or the household's own untreated sewage.

The treatment process uses chlorine to kill viruses in sewage at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in southwest Detroit operated by GLWA. DWSD, GLWA and health experts always advise precautions when encountering raw fecal matter and sewage.

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