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Can coronavirus be spread through water?

Staff Reporter

Diverging views have emerged on whether waste water that could possibly contain the coronavirus could possibly contaminate surface or groundwater if not disposed of correctly.

Professor Abdon Atangana

While some scientists find it a purely academic view as the coronavirus is not expected to survive for long under certain conditions, others feel it should be investigated further to be certain that human life is not at risk.

University of the Free State (UFS) mathematics lecturer Professor Abdon Atangana says he is worried not much is known about the coronavirus’ ability to thrive in waste water or underground after a body infected with the virus has been buried.

But water engineer Maruping Rapudungoane argues chances of this happening are very limited as the water treatment and purification process is quite a rigorous exercise.

“I am afraid that while we are concentrating on fighting COVID-19, we should also look at its effect on surface and groundwater,” said Atangana, a maths lecturer at the Institute for Groundwater Studies in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS.

“If the waste from hospitals — a possible hotspot for COVID-19 infections — comes into direct contact with surface and groundwater, this could lead to pollution.

“(Also), imagine a farmer using groundwater, his borehole is highly connected to fractures.

“If water is infected by the coronavirus travels and reaches his borehole, first all his animals will be infected and also his workers.”

Atangana also feels the method used to bury bodies of people who succumb to COVID-19 may need to be revised to ensure there is no contamination of groundwater as the body begins to decay.

But Rapudungoane allayed any fears of contamination saying Atangana’s suggestions were highly academic as treated water hardly carries any pathogens while borehole is not that easy to contaminate.

Maruping Rapudungoane

“No virus can live in water after it has undergone treatment,” said Rapudungoane, an operations and maintenance executive at Bloemwater, the local water board.

“It’s not possible for any pathogens, bacteria or virus to survive. If that was possible, you and I would be long dead.

“For example, after we treat water in bulk at Bloemwater, we add chlorine to ensure the water remains safe for consumption. And when we pass in it on to Mangaung, they also add chlorine before distribution, so chances of that water being contaminated are very slim.”

Hydrogeologist Anton Jones said there was little evidence to ascertain Atangana’s suggestions because there are very few reports and tests done on COVID-19.

He said most of the current studies speculate its impact based on reports available from the previous SARS and MERS studies.

Jones, who has done some research on groundwater pollution, said in general groundwater contamination by pathogens occurs as a result of poor borehole design and construction allowing the impurities to directly enter the source.

“The probability of coronavirus contamination in groundwater is low, but more studies are required to determine the occurrence,” said Jones, the regional deputy director for the Water Supply Programme in the Department of Water and Sanitation, Free State.

“As a safety precaution, people using groundwater which is not treated by municipal supply systems and are located in built-up communities should make use of local treatment and disinfectant measures especially if the area is susceptible to groundwater contamination by sewerage or on-site septic systems.”

He said sanitary seals and borehole protection zones are effective in protecting the water but in large built-up areas such as rural communities protection zones are not effectively practised.

According to Jones, water naturally undergoes infiltration through soils and bedrock before accumulating as groundwater in aquifers.

This, he said, is generally a long processes and depends on the soil types and geology of the recharge area and groundwater flow.

Through this infiltration, three process take place to aid pathogen reduction: filtration, adsorption and inactivation.

“Through filtration, the pathogens are filtered by pores and cracks in the soil and rocks,” he explained.

“Adsorption is when pathogens become attached to particles which remove them from the water or delays their transport and inactivation is when the pathogens die off after time as the infiltration process is usually slow.

“It’s also dependant on the temperature, pH and additional factors.”

Jones said run-off from effective hand washing is not likely to contaminate waste water as the virus should be deactivated from the soap and disinfectants used.

“There should, in essence, be no impact on groundwater also due to the processes in which groundwater recharge takes place naturally,” he said.

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