EPA awards $1M for research on pathogen detection in wastewater systems

10/18/2022 11:19:16 AM

Pathogens in wastewater can help identify the presence of infectious disease in a community. A University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) research team led by CEE professor Thanh Huong (Helen) Nguyen seeks to improve wastewater monitoring to rapidly detect the emergence and spread of infectious disease in the current COVID-19 pandemic and to detect other pathogens that could cause future pandemics. A $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will fund their work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for effective tools to monitor the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. During the pandemic, wastewater sampling has been widely deployed as a cost-effective, screening-level approach to assess infection levels in communities. Effective wastewater monitoring can detect pathogens in community populations and help public health officials make decisions by providing practical structures for the effective use of wastewater surveillance data in infectious disease control. The research awarded under this grant will improve how wastewater surveillance systems are used for detection of pathogens in community populations.

“Future pandemics will require that wastewater surveillance be deployed quickly and effectively,” Nguyen said. “While a pandemic or epidemic is global or national, pathogen transmission is local.”

Using this grant funding, the UIUC researchers plan to develop a system to rank physical locations where wastewater monitoring should take place to detect the presence of disease-causing pathogens based on accurate predictions from integrated analysis of data streams for weather, human mobility, healthcare, civil infrastructure, population density, socio-demographics, and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“One innovative aspect of the project is to forecast infectious disease transmission based on transportation network analysis, and this forecast will be verified by the monitoring data of sentinel sites along interstates,” Nguyen said.

Results from the project will include a transmission forecasting model for wastewater monitoring, a tested system to identify optimal monitoring sites, and a secure platform for data storage and analysis to provide actionable wastewater monitoring information to public health officials for pandemic control. Results will be communicated to public health officials through the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), which is collaborating with the grantee on the project.

 “Protecting public health is one of EPA’s highest priorities,” said Chris Frey, EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development. “This research will provide critical information about understanding the presence of viruses and other pathogens in communities across the U.S. and support public health officials as they make decisions in current and future pandemics.”

The UIUC team also includes CEE Research Assistant Professor Arthur R. Schmidt, Illinois State Hydrologist Laura Keefer from the Prairie Research Institute and Associate Professor of Epidemiology Rebecca Smith from the College of Veterinary Medicine. Other collaborators include researchers at the University of Florida and Portland State University in Oregon.

To reach Helen Nguyen, email thn@illinois.edu
View the research abstract at https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.abstractDetail/abstract_id/11315/report/0