Predicting the dispersal of SARS-CoV-2 RNA from the wastewater treatment plant to the coast

Robins, Peter E.; Dickson, Neil; Kevill, Jessica L.; Malham, Shelagh K.; Singer, Andrew C. ORCID:; Quilliam, Richard S.; Jones, Davey L.. 2022 Predicting the dispersal of SARS-CoV-2 RNA from the wastewater treatment plant to the coast. Heliyon, 8 (9), e10547. 16, pp.

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Viral pathogens including SARS-CoV-2 RNA have been detected in wastewater treatment effluent, and untreated sewage overflows, that pose an exposure hazard to humans. We assessed whether SARS-CoV-2 RNA was likely to have been present in detectable quantities in UK rivers and estuaries during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. We simulated realistic viral concentrations parameterised on the Camel and Conwy catchments (UK) and their populations, showing detectable SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations for untreated but not for treated loading, but also being contingent on viral decay, hydrology, catchment type/shape, and location. Under mean or low river flow conditions, viral RNA concentrated within the estuaries allowing for viral build-up and caused a lag by up to several weeks between the peak in community infections and the viral peak in the environment. There was an increased hazard posed by SARS-CoV-2 RNA with a T90 decay rate >24 h, as the estuarine build-up effect increased. High discharge events transported the viral RNA downstream and offshore, increasing the exposure risk to coastal bathing waters and shellfisheries – although dilution in this case reduced viral concentrations well below detectable levels. Our results highlight the sensitivity of exposure to viral pathogens downstream of wastewater treatment, across a range of viral loadings and catchment characteristics – with implications to environmental surveillance.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Pollution (Science Area 2017-)
ISSN: 2405-8440
Additional Information. Not used in RCUK Gateway to Research.: Open Access paper - full text available via Official URL link.
Additional Keywords: public health risk, sewage discharge, viral surveillance, water pollution, wastewater-based epidemiology
NORA Subject Terms: Health
Date made live: 31 Oct 2022 17:29 +0 (UTC)

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