City officials in Paris recently reported that trace amounts of the novel coronavirus have been found in the city’s non-potable water supply, drawn from the Seine and the Ourcq canal to clean streets and water park lawns. Authorities have highlighted that the coronavirus has not been found in Paris’s drinking water, and that the amounts identified in non-potable water were very small. The discovery nevertheless holds a number of public health implications, both for the current battle against the coronavirus pandemic and for Europe more broadly.
For one thing, while Parisian officials have been adamant that the city’s drinking water is safe, as it comes from a completely different system and receives much more intensive treatment than the non-potable supply, people may prefer to use bottled water or to run their water through an additional filter before drinking it. Research elsewhere has not been conclusive about whether the coronavirus could pose a threat to drinking water supplies. Two University of Minnesota researchers believe that while public drinking water is generally filtered through a process that kills pathogens—including the novel coronavirus—the virus could leak into the groundwater or private wells from septic systems.
Even before the virus was discovered in Paris’s non-potable water, concerns had been raised about whether or not the virus could be transmitted through water. A recent study suggested that COVID-19, like its fellow coronavirus SARS, may spread through the faecal-oral pathway. This, in turn, has raised the spectre of an incident during the 2003 SARS epidemic, in which faulty plumbing allowed the virus to spread through a Hong Kong apartment block.
Paradoxically, there are some benefits to the fact that the novel coronavirus is making its way into sewage. Scientists who measured the amount of Covid-19 in wastewater around Paris and its suburbs over the course of a month noted that its concentration fluctuated in accordance with the curve of the region’s outbreak, offering a remarkably accurate picture of when cases in Paris began and peaked.
Keeping an eye on the levels of coronavirus in sewage could provide a kind of early warning system, indicating when the outbreak is on the verge of worsening again. This is because the coronavirus shows up in faeces within 3 days of infection—while people generally do not develop symptoms severe enough to seek medical care until fourteen days after having encountered the virus. These extra days of warning could be vital as policymakers decide to relax or tighten social distancing guidelines.
European health officials should also take the renewed interest in water quality provoked by the coronavirus pandemic to push to cover the entire continent with clean water. Around the globe, some 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation facilities, while 663 million do not have ready access to clean water. While it’s not yet clear if the novel coronavirus can be transmitted through contaminated water, diseases from cholera to typhoid are routinely spread through unclean water supplies.
Clean water, at home and abroad
The European Union has repeatedly recognised that “clean water is a human right and a major contributor to sustainable development”, and has spearheaded initiatives to ramp up access to clean water in developing countries, such as an EU-backed consortium which brought new water purification technologies to South Africa and Mozambique.
There are still parts of Europe, however, which are falling far short in providing safe sources of water to their citizens. While some 80% of European citizens believe that they have access to clean drinking water near their homes, a mere 20% have confidence in the drinking water in neighbouring countries—and their concerns are not unjustified.
The World Health Organisation has warned that 14 people die a day in Europe from unsafe water and inadequate sanitation. The problem extends even to the wealthiest countries in the European bloc—in 2016, some 480 people in Germany died from contaminated water, followed by France with 172 fatalities.
The European Commission has repeatedly taken Italy to task for failing to address water contamination, particularly from arsenic and fluoride. A study from December 2019 indicated that certain areas of Italy continue to ingest arsenic levels above the levels prescribed by Italian law and recommended by the WHO. In 2018, meanwhile, the historic city of Matera saw its drinking water supply contaminated by E.coli and contaminated water in cooling towers caused a legionella outbreak in the northern Italian city of Brescia.
Sofia may be the worst offender
The situation is even more serious in Bulgaria, where the government’s failure to provide a consistent supply of safe water is just one in a long list of environmental shortcomings. This February, Nino Dimov, who headed the country’s environment and water ministry since 2017, was arrested for deliberately mismanaging Bulgaria’s water supplies, particularly his decision to allow a dam which provided drinking water for 97,000 people to be drained for industrial purposes.
To make matters worse, E.coli infections started cropping up in the town whose water supply had been depleted. This is not an uncommon problem in Bulgaria, where a number of rivers are polluted with faeces, including its stretch of the Danube. Just earlier this year, the Yugovska and Chepelarska rivers were deliberately contaminated with industrial runoff which had cyanide levels 20 times the legal limit, while in 2017 the Bulgarian government allegedly tried to cover up high concentrations of uranium in several towns’ supplies of drinking water.
Brussels has taken steps to ensure that citizens throughout the EU have access to clean drinking water—most recently by updating the bloc’s Drinking Water Directive with new quality standards and specifications for pipes that drinking water passes through. Given the scale of the problems left to be addressed, however, it’s unlikely that these initiatives will be sufficient to ensure that all Europeans’ drinking water is safe. European policymakers should take the fresh attention which water quality is receiving amidst the coronavirus crisis and push for the bloc’s water supplies to be cleaned up for good.
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