Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Wear a face mask when you’re out doing errands and sanitize your hands frequently. Although most of us have heard similar precautions for the coronavirus pandemic, we are learning every single day that there is another part of transmission. Research continues to help us learn more about how the novel coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is transmitted from person to person.
Now, you have to wonder, “Can COVID-19 be transmitted through a plumbing system?”
According to research agencies like the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 is not present in drinking water. This is good news. It means that disinfection and filtration can remove the virus from water.
Now, let’s discuss the not-so good and bad news.
How Plumbing Can Transmit COVID-19
Similar to other highly contagious viruses, like SARS, COVID-19 has been detected in fecal matter and sewage. In 2003 during the SARS outbreak, transmission through sewage aerosols was detected. Furthermore, SARS was found to remain in untreated sewage for “up to 14 days.” That said, transmission of coronavirus through sewage has not been recorded and it thought to be low risk.
This doesn’t mean that you can be lax when dealing with plumbing problems during this coronavirus pandemic, however. If you live in a multi-tenant building, such as an apartment or assisted living, you are going to want to take extra precautions.
Aside from observing current guidelines for limiting transmission, such as washing your hands frequently and practicing excellent hygiene, here are some other tips:
- Dry piping can be a source of contamination, like any other dry surface. Keep plumbing systems from drying out by pouring water into drains regularly.
- Avoid odors coming from dry pipes.
- Do not leave septic tanks broken or uncovered.
- Continue routine plumbing inspections to catch any problems that could potentially spread COVID-19.
- The U-trap in toilets needs about 0.2-0.4 gallons of water to function properly and avoid dryness. Showers, bathtubs, sinks, and other plumbing fixtures or appliances may need between 1-2 gallons.
- Regularly clean kitchen and bathroom fixtures with non-toxic antiviral solutions.
- When dealing with clogged or overflowing toilets, sinks, or showers and tubs, avoid contact with fecal matter. Get rid of standing water quickly.
If you are concerned about COVID-19 transmission after swimming in a community pool or water parks, don’t worry. Aside from regular person to person transmission, there has been no evidence of coronavirus being transmitted through pool water or any similar places. It is thought that proper sterilization and disinfection with bromine or chlorine inactivates COVID-19.
Dangers of COVID-19 For Multi-Tenant Buildings
Even after over a million confirmed cases of coronavirus throughout the world, there is no evidence of the virus spreading via plumbing. However, there have been suspicions surrounding an apartment complex in Hong Kong. In February 2020, two tenants caught coronavirus, and the complex with partially evacuated. However, three more cases were soon reported. Interestingly, the original COVID-19 patients lived in apartments that were vertically aligned but 10 stories apart. The toilet discharge pipes were also linked.
Experts pondered the connection. Pathogens can definitely be transmitted, particularly in old buildings that have self-refitted exhaust fans and pipes, old water traps (U-traps), faulty plumbing systems, and so on.
After an investigation of the building in Hong Kong, it was said that the U-trap might have contributed to the spread of COVID-19. The U-trap should always have a small amount of water, because it acts as a plug that stops contaminants from rising back through the pipes and into the air.
The transmission of coronavirus through air particles is still being studied, but most scientists believe there is some risk. If COVID-19 acts like SARS, which can be carried on air particles, then it is certainly possible that coronavirus, when present in fecal matter, could contaminate the air should the U-trap in the plumbing system be defunct.
Fecal Matter and COVID-19
With all this talk of excrement, we need to get to the bottom of it all—pun intended. Plumbers handle all kinds of unsanitary conditions, so this is important to know. If coronavirus can be washed off with water or inactivated by disinfectants like chlorine and the chance of it being present in air particles is relatively low, then how much of a risk is feces?
The CDC and research published in Popular Science both stated that COVID-19 “can be transmitted through contact with infected feces,” but there is also some skepticism. The CDC states that “the amount of virus released from the body in stool, how long the virus is shed, and whether the virus in stool is infectious” is not yet known.
What we do know is that droplets of the virus are spread through coughing and sneezing. Fecal-oral transmission could then be possible. While the notion is certainly gross, this takes us back to the reason washing your hands is so important to limiting contamination. Whenever you touch a doorknob, toilet seat, lavatory door, or somewhere that could potentially have fecal matter, you could be at risk.
In short, while COVID-19 is highly contagious, there is still a lot of things we do not know about the virus. Preliminary research has found that water transmission of the novel coronavirus isn’t possible, but fecal and fecal-oral transmission is certainly possible. That is why it is important to keep maintaining your plumbing system to stop clogs and overflows before they start. Avoid any contact with untreated sewage, wear protective gear (mask and gloves) when necessary, and keep washing your hands.
In the event you run into a plumbing problem during social distancing, find a professional who is trained to handle these kinds of emergencies. Stay safe. Stay healthy!
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