Science & Tech Spotlight: Wastewater Surveillance

Why This Issues

Wastewater surveillance can be an economical way to detect group-amount sickness outbreaks and other well being threats. It has the possible to recognize a COVID-19 outbreak 1 to 2 weeks quicker than clinical testing and permit for a extra speedy general public health response. Nevertheless, the deficiency of national coordination and standardized procedures pose issues to broader adoption.

The Science

What is it? Wastewater surveillance, also known as wastewater-dependent epidemiology, is the checking of pathogens (e.g., viruses), as nicely as pharmaceuticals and harmful or other substances by screening sewage (see fig. 1). Community health and fitness officers can use this method to check for outbreaks, recognize threats (e.g., antibiotic-resistant bacteria), and, in reaction, assistance the mobilization of sources.

Determine 1. Makes use of of wastewater testing.

Pathogens and substances can enter sewer devices via human squander. Wastewater surveillance plans obtain sewage samples from these devices and cure crops and send out them to laboratories for testing. Officers can use check info, for case in point, to assess whether there is a viral outbreak or escalating drug use and then determine what actions to choose to protect public wellbeing. These actions could possibly include things like greater clinical screening in an place, or alerting nearby clinics and hospitals to prepare for an improve in people.

How is it used? For several decades, the U.S. and other nations have made use of wastewater surveillance to keep track of for pathogen and chemical levels in their communities. Australia, for case in point, is utilizing a wastewater surveillance software to keep track of the amounts of illicit drug use in the populace to estimate the usefulness of regulation enforcement efforts to seize medication. 

In the U.S., federal and local governments, universities, and corporations have not too long ago greater investments in wastewater surveillance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of February 2022, wellbeing departments in 43 jurisdictions, symbolizing about 16 % of the U.S. populace, ended up working with funds distributed by the Facilities for Disease Management and Prevention (CDC) to aid wastewater surveillance initiatives. The CDC functions with these 43 jurisdictions to obtain details that monitor SARS-CoV-2 ranges and make these facts publically accessible as a result of its National Wastewater Surveillance Technique (NWSS) web-site. Practically 80 percent of the U.S. inhabitants is served by municipal sewer techniques that could be monitored by these programs.

Wastewater surveillance can serve a lot of applications (see fig. 2). For example, it can give an early warning for infectious sickness outbreaks so a group can just take motion. It can detect lower degrees of SARS-CoV-2 in human waste right before signs or symptoms look, as early as 1 to 2 months prior to an contaminated individual may seek out clinical screening. It can also detect SARS-CoV-2 from asymptomatic men and women who make up about 70 per cent of cases and may perhaps not seek out scientific screening.

Determine 2. Wastewater surveillance advantages across unique populace measurements.

Some U.S. universities have utilised wastewater surveillance to recognize buildings, this sort of as dormitories, with perhaps significant or increasing infection fees amid student inhabitants and subsequently goal medical screening and quarantine attempts to avert outbreaks on campus. For case in point, in the slide of 2020, a person college utilized wastewater surveillance to detect practically 85 % of COVID-19 circumstances that were being later on confirmed via scientific tests.

What are some gaps? Wastewater surveillance may well have tremendous likely as a public wellbeing software, but some aspects of the science may well need to have even further growth. For case in point, rainwater or industrial discharge can dilute wastewater samples, whilst contaminants such as animal waste can compromise sample origin or excellent. In January 2021, for case in point, scientists identified a SARS-CoV-2 mutation in New York Metropolis wastewater, perhaps signifying a variant, but are continue to attempting to identify whether it has been circulating in humans.

In addition, the prospective charge-savings from wastewater surveillance are unclear. At least just one study suggests that wastewater surveillance could conserve nations tens of millions to billions in U.S. pounds, based on many country-precise variables. Even so, the normal lack of price-benefit analyses tends to make it complicated to identify how and when to use it. 

What are some issues? Some scientists contend that the U.S. could gain from a standardized approach to wastewater surveillance. For case in point, tests for distinctive SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater is not a typical follow. Some point out well being departments are carrying out this, but the CDC is not employing the NWSS to observe variants identified in wastewater. Even further, the absence of a standardized strategy complicates endeavours to combination, interpret, and evaluate info throughout web sites and build big-scale public wellbeing interventions.

Some experts suggest expanding the NWSS outside of SARS-CoV-2 to discover other pathogens and chemical substances. For instance, tests for chemical substances, these as opioids, in wastewater needs different processes than tests for pathogens. A process like NWSS could be made to recognize a range of overall health threats.

At last, wastewater surveillance raises privacy and ethical worries for the reason that wastewater includes not only a pathogen’s genetic data that permit community health and fitness officials to establish the pathogen, but also human genetic data that could possibly be misused. Furthermore, communities may be stigmatized if wastewater surveillance facts show pathogen unfold or illicit drug use.


  • A lot quicker community well being reaction. Health and fitness treatment suppliers and community wellbeing officials can use wastewater surveillance as an early warning for health threats, and use it alongside with other applications to predict, prepare for, and initiate a more immediate response to infectious sickness outbreaks and other wellbeing threats.
  • Local community aim. Community testing could present an prospect to watch and reply to pathogen distribute and drug use, in particular in parts with limited entry to testing or health and fitness treatment.


  • Affordability. Wastewater surveillance can be specially helpful when medical testing is source constrained, but it is challenging to quantify the worth because of to a lack of cost-gain analyses.
  • Coordination and standardization. Approaches for sample collection, investigation, and info sharing are not at this time standardized, building it difficult to compare websites and concentrate mitigation attempts.
  • Sample integrity. Contaminants this kind of as animal squander can compromise sample high-quality, and the origin of detected pathogens and chemical compounds may possibly not constantly be obvious.
  • Privacy. Using wastewater details could pose privacy worries when joined with identifiable knowledge, primarily in tiny communities.

Coverage Context and Inquiries

  • What techniques could possibly enable to standardize wastewater surveillance programs in the U.S.?
  • What can be performed to promote cost-benefit analyses of widespread wastewater surveillance for community wellbeing threats? 
  • If charges and gains are favorable, what procedures would very best aid the use of wastewater surveillance details while protecting personal privateness?
  • How can wastewater surveillance data be used as a public health and fitness source for policymaking?

For much more information, contact Karen Howard at 202-512-6888 or [email protected]