February 16, 2022

Dr. Mark Sobsey

Dr. Mark Sobsey

There is no proof that people can contract COVID-19 from wastewater, according to a report by Mark Sobsey, PhD, of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater is often a warning sign that COVID-19 has spread through a community. While the virus is primarily transmitted through aerosols and respiratory droplets, those who are infected shed viral particles through fecal waste, even if they are asymptomatic. This has led to some concern that transmission may be possible through sources that have contact with fecal waste, such as wastewater, biosolids, recreational waters and irrigation water used in agriculture.

Sobsey’s review, published recently in the Journal of Water & Health, found no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 particles present in fecal waste are infectious or capable of spreading.

Sobsey is a retired Kenan Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School and an advisor on water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) and infection protection and control (IPC) for the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the onset of the pandemic, Sobsey’s analysis and expertise have been instrumental in developing guidance for public health experts in WaSH and clinical care who need to understand the risks of COVID-19 exposure through water and wastewater.

In his analysis of documented scientific literature and both laboratory and field studies, Sobsey reports that not only is there no documented evidence for the presence of infectious SARS-CoV-2 particles in environmental fecal wastes and waters, but there is also no epidemiological evidence that water and wastewater have ever contributed to human cases, clusters or outbreaks of COVID-19 infection, illness or death.

“For these reasons,” Sobsey states, “there is no basis for establishing a chain of infection or providing evidence of human health risk for COVID-19 transmission from environmental fecal waste and water exposures.”

Read the full report online.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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