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Targeted wastewater surveillance has a history of social and ethical concerns

Targeted wastewater monitoring has a history of social and ethical problems

Testing wastewater for the presence of diseases has grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Shutterstock

Wastewater monitoring involves testing wastewater to obtain data on the health of a population. Although the technique is decades old, it has recently gained international acclaim for its ability to predict pandemic peaks, detect new SARS-CoV-2 variants and provide useful data when traditional testing methods reach their capacity. With its success, the field is expanding.

Wastewater surveillance plays an increasingly important role as governments around the world abandon common and state-based care methods, such as masking and clinical PCR testing. The United States recently launched a National Wastewater Monitoring Systemwhile the health ministers of the G7 pledged support for surveillance systems

As wastewater monitoring applications have grownso have academic and public discussions on the ethics of using wastewater for surveillance.

Targeted supervision

Ethicalsocial and politics concerns on wastewater monitoring are not new.

But with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and the rapid adoption of wastewater-based epidemiology, these concerns take on a new urgency, especially as sewage is being monitored on an increasingly smaller scale.

Wastewater monitoring is often praised for its impartial, anonymous and non-intrusive nature. Most programs today monitor wastewater treatment plants or sewage sheds, where samples are collected to a point where many scientists, officials, and research committees claim they pose minimal ethical or privacy threats.

But over the past decade, wastewater monitoring has become more and more deployed on a smaller scale† This is called targeted monitoring or near-source tracking and has happened in several situations.

Among which student roomslong-term care facilities and workplaces in North America; law enforcement focused areas in China and Australia† correctional facilities across the US, including: OklahomaKentucky and Ohio† and housing facilities for migrant workers in Singapore

As human geographers who study sanitation, environmental monitoring, and biological data, we are concerned that discussions on the ethics of wastewater monitoring have paid little attention to the geography and history of monitoring wastewater near its source.

Surveillance History

In 2015 researchers raised concerns about targeted monitoring of wastewater in prisons, schools, workplaces and hospitals† Targeted surveillance of opioids in prison sewers could hypothetically justify overly harsh measures, such as banning visitors, the researchers say.

While the number of targeted applications today is historically unprecedented, concerns regarding their applications are not new. Preliminary findings from our historic wastewater monitoring study show that early, influential near-source studies provoked fears in researchers or revealed ethical oversights.

In 1946, a scientist in a British seaside town in North Devon tried to locate the source of a typhoid outbreak. Locating the source was urgently needed as it threatened not only the health of the city but also the tourism-based economy.

Sewer tests traced the source of the outbreak to the wife of a popular ice cream vendor on the beach. The published study referred to the city as “X,” fearing the findings would negatively affect tourism. For privacy reasons, the study warned that: “Except in the case of an outbreak, narrowing the infection back to the individual carrier is probably unwise

1962, a Yale scientist used similar near-source methods to study the efficacy of polio vaccination campaigns in Connecticut. The wastewater from juvenile detainees in a delinquent girls’ prison was one of five sites strategically selected for testing before and after vaccine administration. This study closely related the development of near-source tracking to experiments with marginalized populations.

Later, in 1967, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted another vaccine efficacy study on wastewater to target a student housing complex. They wrote that “through suitable samples one can follow a housing project, an apartment building or maybe even a single household

In 1973 the method was applied to migrant workers. The South African government has a cholera surveillance system for the country’s gold mining industry. This system was based on monitoring wastewater in barracks followed by targeted, invasive rectal swabs. Wastewater monitoring therefore ensured that South African mining companies could continue to have access to cheap foreign labour.

These early cases demonstrate that the threats that near-source tracking poses to the privacy of individuals and groups, as well as to research ethics, go back decades. Wastewater monitoring is not apolitical or neutral. It has been developed, expanded and standardized in ways that potential to increase class, racial and gender inequality

Ethics of Wastewater Monitoring

Those involved in wastewater monitoring are aware of these issues.

Experts in the field are particularly concerned about: the types of human-identifying genetic data those are found in wastewater† They are also concerned about what can be done with archived samples as analysis techniques advance rapidly?

Efforts are underway to develop guidelines to address these issues. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer: guidelines for targeted wastewater monitoring† The WHO interim guidelines state that: guidelines are neededespecially “when sampling relatively small and well-defined buildings or confined spaces such as prisons, refugee camps, or schools.”

Canadian Water Network researchers state that when it comes to monitoring wastewater near its source, existing WHO public health guidelines should be considered and adapted to address a specific set of bioethical concerns† These include minimizing or disclosing risks, clear justification for using identifiable data, and commitments not to share data with agencies outside of public health.

As private sector companies increasingly offer wastewater testing, the need for guidance and regulation becomes more pressing. The recent private sector involvement in wastewater monitoring can cause or exacerbate ethical, legal and political problems.

Considered Applications

We are not arguing against the use of wastewater monitoring. However, given the potential of damage from near-source tracking at sites with existing disparities, it is crucial to consider the challenges, histories, and long-term concerns arising from this method.

We should have public conversations about what information is collected through wastewater monitoring, how and where it is collected, who identifies it and who has control over its use and possibly its sale.

It is also necessary to ask what other forms of care could replace this type of technology, including state-funded testing, preventive infection prevention and masking.


CDC turns to wastewater data to track spread of COVID


Provided by The Conversation


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Quote: Focused Wastewater Surveillance Has a History of Social and Ethical Concerns (2022, June 10) retrieved June 10, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-wastewater-surveillance-history-social-ethical.html

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