Human poop used to map, prevent COVID-19 on campus | #students | #parents


ALBANY — College students in the Capital Region are doing the dirty work in the fight against COVID-19 — by collecting human poop and testing it for the virus that causes the disease.

Siena College in Loudonville was among the first educational institutions in New York to launch a wastewater testing program that can potentially identify areas where the coronavirus is present and detect the pathogen more than a week before it would turn up on a diagnostic swab.

Now other local colleges are experimenting with similar “early warning” programs and New York’s Health and Environmental Conservation departments say they are working with the engineering firm Arcadis to launch wastewater surveillance pilots in four localities, including Albany.

When the studies are complete, the data will help map where the virus is present and provide valuable insight into the overall health of the Capital Region.

Kate Meierdiercks, an associate professor and chair of Siena’s department of environmental studies and sciences, said she read about the University of Arizona’s wastewater surveillance program, which was credited with preventing an outbreak on campus.

MORE: Times Union coronvirus coverage

She worked through the summer with two environmental studies students, Anne Larsen and Cassidy Hammecker, to design a pilot study.

“The students really found it interesting and enjoyed diving into the logistics … once the students got back onto campus we tried the pilot project,” Meierdiercks said.

Kate Meierdiercks, associate professor and chair of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Siena College, talks about the wastewater testing being done at the college on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Loudonville, N.Y. The college is testing the wastewater from dorms on a weekly basis to monitor for COVID. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

Hoses placed down manholes and sewage pipes collect liquid samples over a 24-hour period into a five-gallon container, which is then delivered to a lab in Syracuse for RNA analysis.

There are three levels of viral content registered by the college: not detected, detected but not quantifiable, and quantifiable, which means “it’s definitely there,” according to Meierdiercks. The students call waste with quantifiable levels of the coronavirus “hot water.”

To prevent false positives, the lab also compares the level of the coronavirus to the level of other viruses typically found in wastewater.

Siena’s program was so successful that college President Chris Gibson decided to scale up the program, and now the students are collecting sewage water samples at all five resident halls on a weekly basis.

The weekly analysis supplements Siena’s campuswide surveillance program; random COVID-19 testing is concentrated in dormitories and areas of campus where wastewater contains detectable levels of the virus.

At a time when there is anxiety at Siena College over a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases on campus, students say it feels empowering to be part of the solution.

“It feels great to give back to, not just the students, but knowing it’s keeping the whole community safe,” Hammecker said. “At 8 a.m.,  (handling sewage) can be a little jarring, but it’s definitely is worth the gross factor.”

Experts say the coronavirus levels found in wastewater are not an indicator of the severity of an outbreak and the data is typically used in conjunction with other public health measures.

RELATED: Where to get tested for COVID-19 in the Capital Region

There are countless factors that could affect the concentration of coronavirus RNA in any given sample — outside visitors, showers, and even the weather could dilute or kill the virus — but the data is helpful in tracking down asymptomatic cases and measuring overall community health.

“It could be we got a better sample that week,” Meierdiercks said. “It’s so tempting to say yes, we have more infected individuals or less infected individuals, but the science is just not there yet.”

John Cummings,  Siena’s dean of the school of science, has devised his own sewage sampling device using a Gatorade cooler, a pool pump, a glass growler, and a tube he purchased at The Home Depot.

“Since I’ve become an administrator I’ve had less contact with science so this is an opportunity to be do something with my hands again,” Cummings said.

John Cummings, dean of the School of Science at Siena College, talks about a dedicated wastewater sampler outside a dorm on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Loudonville, N.Y. Cummings said he built the sampler as a mashup of different ideas he read about. The sampler is built using a pool pump, insulated liquid cooler, tubing, and a gallon glass container. The college is testing the wastewater from dorms on a weekly basis to monitor for COVID. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
John Cummings, dean of the School of Science at Siena College, talks about a dedicated wastewater sampler outside a dorm on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Loudonville, N.Y. Cummings said he built the sampler as a mashup of different ideas he read about. The sampler is built using a pool pump, insulated liquid cooler, tubing, and a gallon glass container. The college is testing the wastewater from dorms on a weekly basis to monitor for COVID. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

John Cummings, dean of the School of Science at Siena College, talks about a dedicated wastewater sampler outside a dorm on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Loudonville, N.Y. Cummings said he built the sampler as a mashup of different ideas he read about. The sampler is built using a pool pump, insulated liquid cooler, tubing, and a gallon glass container. The college is testing the wastewater from dorms on a weekly basis to monitor for COVID. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
John Cummings, dean of the School of Science at Siena College, talks about a dedicated wastewater sampler outside a dorm on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Loudonville, N.Y. Cummings said he built the sampler as a mashup of different ideas he read about. The sampler is built using a pool pump, insulated liquid cooler, tubing, and a gallon glass container. The college is testing the wastewater from dorms on a weekly basis to monitor for COVID. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

The other four wastewater samplers– units that can cost thousands of dollars–are on loan from Adirondack Environmental Services, an environmental engineering firm.

Analysis of wastewater was used for decades in the fight against polio. Many campuses already have extensive COVID-19 testing procedures, but even campuses that require every student to test negative have seen cases because of the lag time before an infected person tests positive or begins exhibiting symptoms.

The University at Albany’s new Department of Environmental and Sustainable Engineering started piloting on-campus wastewater testing at three locations in late September.

“We focused on two residential halls where we have residents, and the third is the alumni house where there are no students living … We are using it as a control to see whether we get some false positives or not,” Yanna Liang, the department chair  leading the project.


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