Team reflects on ethical and scientific issues related to wastewater surveillance

8/25/2021 11:00:31 AM

Jeremy Guest
Jeremy Guest

Wastewater surveillance as a way to monitor communities for cases of COVID-19 is on the rise. Beyond tracking infections, however, the practice can reveal extensive information about the contributing community like the prevalence of alcohol, narcotics and prescription drug use. But as scientists and public health officials ponder the promise of this practice, they should also consider the perils, according to an opinion paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. CEE associate professor Jeremy Guest is among the seven authors from academia.

The practice of monitoring wastewater to gather information on the health status of the contributing population has been key to informing pandemic response during the COVID-19 crisis and has focused attention on the practice, the authors write.

“Wastewater surveillance and wastewater-based epidemiology can be tremendously effective components of early warning systems for outbreaks of infectious disease” Guest said. “We’ve seen these tools used with COVID-19, helping inform public health responses to the pandemic.”

Yet some of the proposed uses of wastewater surveillance strain the bounds of ethics and risk the mischaracterization of vulnerable populations.

“As people explore other data that can be gathered from a community’s wastewater, we need to keep in mind that just because we can measure something, doesn’t mean we should,” Guest said. “People should be able to expect privacy in their sanitation and hygiene, and trust their basic bodily functions will not be misused to judge or govern them.”

The team hopes to raise awareness about ethical and scientific issues related to wastewater surveillance, with the goal of harnessing the potential of these tools while avoiding pitfalls that could undermine public trust and the role of engineers in society.

To read the opinion piece “Preventing Scientific and Ethical Misuse of Wastewater Surveillance Data” visit https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.1c04325.